Three tips for effective mentoring

Mentoring young engineering employees is key to their success.

By Syed Peeran, PE, PhD, CDM Smith, Boston April 15, 2015

Starting from the time of Socrates, nurturing and developing young minds and mentoring have been the goals of all teachers. However, the Socratic method of unending questions and answers is no longer followed. Nor is the ancient Indian method of nonstop teaching of any one subject. In the Indian mythological times, the disciples used to live with the guru for a number of years doing his household chores like fetching water from the river, grinding corn, and washing and cooking for him while receiving constant Vedic instruction.

Present-day education is more ambitious and is meant to cover much greater ground, with each subject taught in small doses. Today, education does not end on the day of graduation. Despite the large number of technical subjects an engineering student is supposed to have achieved proficiency in by graduation, he or she typically enters the workforce world totally unprepared.

Employers often complain that the graduates know nothing and have no clue about modern business and industry. This is OK; there is no need for recent graduates to get frustrated. They should not be expected to step right in and start being productive from day one. It is up to the employer to mold them into the role they are expected to play. This is where mentoring comes in. Mentoring offers what no other method of teaching offers-one-to-one contact.

1. Get to know the mentee personally

Young people often are reluctant to open up and discuss their personal affairs with older people. Most parents are well aware of this barrier. However, mentoring cannot be effective until this barrier is overcome. The mentor must assure the mentee that whatever is discussed between them will remain confidential-as much as or even more than in the lawyer-client or doctor-patient relationship. If this confidentiality agreement is signed and delivered to the mentee, it will perhaps break the ice and let the mentee to be forthright with the mentor.

Think of this as one concrete step in making mentoring effective. Encourage the mentee to talk about everyday life, including any worries, financial difficulties, fears and apprehensions, likes and dislikes, books he or she enjoys reading, favorite movies, and even his or her sex life (if that is not too embarrassing). Write all this down and give a copy to the mentee. This will let the mentee see how he or she projects himself or herself to others. The mentee should be encouraged to think of the mentor as an older and wiser roommate with whom he or she can confide.

2. Continue education

Remember that the purpose of your mentoring is to help the mentee become productive in your firm. Start by encouraging the mentee to read technical and trade journals. Explore the mentee’s technical interests and help him or her advance by lending books and articles. I encouraged my mentee to prepare and deliver a lunchtime seminar on a particular topic to the group he was working with. Assist the mentee in augmenting his or her presentation and developing it into a possible article in a trade journal because writing and presentation skills are invaluable no matter what field one works in.

Meet regularly, at least once a month. In your meetings, discuss a topic of general interest, related or unrelated to the mentee’s work. The idea is to have an intelligent conversation in which the mentee leads the discussion.

3. Improve productivity

Workplace happiness-or at least lack of tension-greatly improves productivity. Talk to the mentee about the immediate environment. How does he or she get along with the other members of the group? Do they sometimes go out for lunch? Are there any conflicts? Is the group leader fair and friendly in assigning the work and scheduling deadlines? The mentor should address any issues. Sometimes it is necessary to talk with the group leader to iron out tensions, if any.

Discuss with the mentee the details of his work assignment. Find out how confident he or she is in completing it in time. In addition to the immediate work assignment, talk to the mentee about his short-and long-term goals, for example, preparing for the board examination for certification.

Finally, ask the mentee how he or she sees himself or herself 10 years from now. I always ask this question. The answer tells me a lot about the mentee. 

Syed Peeran is a senior engineer with CDM Smith. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.