To mentor and be mentored: What does it really look like?

Debunking mentorship myths within the engineering industry.

By Rebecca Delaney, PE, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago August 17, 2017

Mentorship is a key component to the development and success of young professionals early in their career. Leading government officials, CEOs, and thought leaders have each proclaimed the value of mentorship and the role it played in their own success.

In their books "Lean In" and "Unfinished Business," Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter, respectively, emphasized the importance of mentorship. In 1977, a study published in the Harvard Business Review found that approximately 66% of respondents had a mentor, which led to higher earnings and increased happiness at a younger working age. The concept of mentorship isn’t new, but in the age of social media and digital integration, the roles of the mentor and mentee have evolved to keep pace with access to information, resources, and technology.

Here are a few of the myths that have been debunked regarding mentorship:

Myth #1: Mentorship is a formal relationship.

Mentorship has been presented as a formal relationship between two people, most frequently involving a junior staffer and a senior executive. As a college graduate, there’s the fear of not finding a mentor early on. Embracing an informal approach to mentorship allows mentees to leverage the experience of surrounding leaders including conference speakers and college professors. Some mentors you’ll meet once, others regularly, and some over coffee quarterly. Many of the most meaningful learning moments have come from a conversation or speaker who created the challenge to think differently about the world. This can lead to a long-term mentorship.

Merriam-Webster defines a "mentor" as a trusted counselor or guide. A mentor can be any age, have any relationship to you, or come from any level within a company. Mentors are all around you—finding one is all about how you seek them out. Leverage your extensive access to potential mentors through LinkedIn, email, blogs, webcasts, conferences—even if you only interact once, the advice of an experienced professional can still contribute to your success.

Myth #2: Mentors must agree to be your mentor.

For example, there was a young man who became good friends with a successful, midlevel analyst within his firm. Their conversations spanned from sports to the politics of senior management and potential areas of growth for young professionals. The relationship had all the hallmarks of mentorship, but lacked a formal arrangement, alleviating pressure on the mentor and mentee.

The mentee didn’t let the absence of formal titles discount the importance of the relationship. In the past several years, his informal mentor has inspired tremendous growth in his professional and personal life.

Myth #3: Mentorship is all about me.

Most of the guidance will flow in the mentee’s direction. However, being a mentor has profound impacts too. The ability to share experiences provides encouragement and confidence while also serving as a reminder of how much growth has occurred since the beginning of the mentor’s career. It’s easy to always look ahead and continue to improve; but as a mentor, reflecting upon that mentor relationship experience is very meaningful.

There is value in a formalized mentorship. However, for a young engineer, the lack of awareness of such programs can limit access to a network of academic peers and professional colleagues. Years later, I realized how much mentorship I had already received informally in the early years of my career—much of which laid the foundation for success I have found later in my career. 

Rebecca Delaney is a mechanical team leader at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s sustainable engineering studio. She was a 2016 40 Under 40 award winner.