Appeared in Engineering Times July 2005
Often in a large university setting, students can feel like just a social security number stuck in huge lecture sessions where professors may not remember who they are. But Professional Engineer Kenneth Diehl isn’t your typical educator at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He actively seeks out both students and colleagues to help guide them in their careers.
“A little bit of effort can go a long way,” says Diehl. “I take some time with a younger person to chat and see what their concerns are.”
Mentoring is an important part of making sure that the life-blood of a profession continues to flow, and can be rewarding for both the mentor and the mentee. But those who have chosen to mentor must do so in a productive and organized fashion.
A productive and organized approach to mentoring earned Diehl the first NSPE Joe A. Rhoads Mentor of the Year award, presented last July at the NSPE 2004 Annual convention in Hawaii. The award goes to an individual who has established a record of consistent outreach toward others in the field for a number of years or has developed or supported mentoring programs within the company or professional community.
Diehl was both surprised and humbled by the honor, but feels that he hasn’t done any more than what the profession requires of him. “It’s our responsibility as PEs to mentor,” says the director of the NC State College of Engineering program and creator of the UNCW Student Engineering Association, which gives students career guidance. “We are to encourage and help our fellow engineers in their careers. It’s a professional obligation.”
This willingness to reach out and mentor a student or a young engineer can help make sure that the engineering profession remains strong. “You can’t keep it going if there aren’t people coming up in the ranks,” warns Diehl.
Taking the time to mentor can be a positive action, but it’s not a role that should be taken lightly. “Anybody can be a mentor, but not everyone can be a good mentor,” says George Smart, managing partner of Strategic Development, Inc., a leadership training consulting firm in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Smart will address this topic at the NSPE 2005 Annual Convention in Chicago on July 8 during the session “Smart Mentoring: Skills for Today’s Mentors.”
“Both the mentor and the mentee can benefit from this,” says Smart. “Both of their potentials go up through this interaction.”
Some people misconstrue the mentor’s role and often to the detriment of the mentee. Networking is not mentoring and people often confuse the two. Mentors should stay away from taking on a manger role and instead allow the mentee to guide the interaction. The mentee should present an agenda and the list of skills that he or she would like to develop.
Mentoring is about career development and not so much about problem solving. Mentors shouldn’t solve a problem for the mentee but rather provide them with resources that will help them find the answer. “Mentees should ask you good questions so they can come to their own conclusions,” says Smart. “They need to develop good judgment and decisions-making skills.”
Smart has noticed a trend of companies establishing formal mentoring programs, but he finds that many programs lack the right structure to be successful. Often the programs are established on a whim by the human resources department and do not have the proper planning. Smart recommends that the program not be initiated or entirely run by the human resources department, and he says it needs some key attributes to stick:
Mentoring works best when the mentor is at least two levels above the mentee. “The person who knows the most about the mentee’s next job should ideally do the mentoring,” advises Smart. “This knowledge frequently lies not in the mentee’s boss, but the boss of the mentee’s boss.”
A well-structured formal program can be successful it executed properly, but informal mentoring is also important. Mentors just need to keep one main goal in mind when they take on this duty: “The job of a mentor is to be a mirror to the mentee and reflect back what he or she needs to do,” says Smart.