I was struck by an engineering colleague (in his early sixties) who was heartbroken last week at the death of his mentor. I can quite understand the depth of the relationship - I was a little saddened too, on reflection, as my mentor was only around for a few years - too short, by my reckoning, as I was still inadequate as a young engineer. Being a mentor, doesn't just refer to academic or college relationships, but as in my case - the tough and tumble world of industry and can range from someone with a PhD, to a CEO of a company, to an engineering manager or to a humble electrician who has wisdom.
A formal definition of a mentor - someone who takes a special interest in an individual who is intent on developing into a successful professional. This is more than an advisor, but someone who is personally involved and wants to ensure the person becomes successful. In the engineering world, I often think of mentors from the middle age guilds where apprentices were taken under the wing of the master and guided – eventually becoming successful professionals. I believe the modern mentor is simply an extension of this. Mutual trust, understanding and empathy characterise the relationship. There have been a few challenges with female-male mentoring relationships, but I believe they too can be very successful and vibrant relationships. A good mentor has a vast amount of experience and listens (and avoids pontificating on a range of subjects to a captive audience).
Why do we need them? Well in today's fast moving world, there is a shortage of engineers with experience. There are an enormous number of young bloods bolting around with academic training and book knowledge, but perhaps inadequate experience in terms of engineering and management. They need thoughtful guidance.
Every company needs mentors if it is to grow and sustain its young recruits. The position of mentor need not be formalised, but a firm needs to cultivate them and ensure they are available to work with and mentor young aspiring engineers.
Some advice if you are becoming a mentor:
- Listen patiently
- Don't patronise
- Build strong relationships
- Don't abuse your authority (having your charges complete jobs that are your responsibility, for example)
- Nurture and grow your charges into self sufficiency
- Establish protected time together where you spend quality time examining regular issues
- Get your charges into your professional network
- Be constructive and truthful (even if it sometimes hurts)
- Ensure there is a balance between breadth and specialisation
- Be a good role model
If you don't have mentors in your firm, get them set up immediately. You will have a reservoir of outstanding, experienced engineers dying to pass on their hard won experience. And a flood of young engineers and techies desperately needing some guidance on the rather rocky road to engineering excellence. It will be well worth it with the result; staff goodwill, excellent career development and, eventually, dramatically improved productivity.
Thanks to https://www.nap.edu/html/mentor/ (National Academy of Sciences) for the initial idea and framework.
Please send us examples of your own mentors and I will publicise them in next week's newsletter.
Here is a little bit about mine: A remarkable man, 'Ali' Erasmus, who inspired me and still does. He moved easily between the boardroom and the shopfloor and had a passion for people and engineering.
And as Henry Miller pointed out about mentors and leaders: "The real leader has no need to lead - he is content to point the way". As mentors we should be actively doing this and benefitting our profession.
Yours in engineering learning