Recently I spoke to a room full of mentees as part of their formal mentoring program. Each mentee had been assigned a mentor from a group of volunteers, almost always from a different company to the one he or she was working at.
At the start of the session, I asked each person in the audience to close their eyes (for greater honesty) and take part in a short survey by raising their hands to questions. Only about 45% of the audience had mentors other than the one assigned to them through the program. 95% of the audience thought their mentors offered them value, but only 30% thought they had anything of value to offer to their assigned mentor.
From the survey, most people gain benefit from a mentor, but judging from the 30% statistic, I think they place them upon an unrealistic pedestal. Engineering careers are incredibly diverse, and it’s rare for one career to be a successful imitation of another. Circumstances change over time for the profession, and there are usually many ways to interpret or approach a given problem. Your world is not your mentor’s world, even if you work for the same organisation.
In my experience, it’s more useful to have a network of mentors, each offering you a different viewpoint when you need advice. Each will have their different strengths, and you may prefer to seek their mentorship at different times, depending on your needs. Mentors don’t have to be formally labelled as such, and in fact, I’ve only ever had a formal mentor for 24 hours at a conference. Mentors might just be senior professionals you always take the opportunity to talk to, or those you observe from a distance.
The skills that will help you build a mentor network are the same skills that you need for networking generally. At the top of the list is communication. Sit and think about those around you who can help you develop and achieve things, both inside and outside your organisation. After you map them out and commit them to memory, confidently communicate with them as the opportunities arise. Simply identifying those who are of value to you is the first important step. Networking opportunities can be fleeting, so be prepared in advance.
The second step is to know what you can offer in the relationship. This can be the difference between a lasting mentorship—one in which the mentor is engaged—and a superficial one. As my impromptu survey suggests, young engineers often undervalue themselves in relationships with senior colleagues.
As young professionals, your main offering is information, and it is your challenge to communicate information to a senior audience. Fundamentally, you have knowledge of engineering business on the ground, in contact with customers, and from a fresh viewpoint. Managers crave that knowledge. Don’t forget: it is your expertise that any engineering company sells, and there’s nothing of low value in that.