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The mentoring art

The mentoring art

Garden Grove, CA--In an issue in which we're focusing on engineering careers, I asked one of the most respected engineers I know--Bernard Dagarin--to give a summary of his thoughts on what has become a lost art in many organizations: mentoring.

Looking back on 43 years in engineering, Bernie should know a thing or two about the subject. As the program manager for the historic Galileo Project at Hughes Space and Communications Co., he was the glue that kept the NASA-sponsored program going through an often frustrating 17-year odyssey. Happily, the project culminated in the successful entry of a scientific probe into Jupiter's fiery atmosphere. For that accomplishment, Design News readers voted him the 1997 Engineer of the Year.

Having trained many young engineers over the years--and recalling those who helped him--Dagarin observes that fostering a healthy culture of mentoring requires a clear commitment from three parties: the mentor, the individual who is mentored, and finally, company management.

To be a good mentor, Dagarin cites these essential qualities:

A strong desire to share one's hard-earned experience and wisdom with a younger or less experienced colleague--without expecting anything in return.

  • An attitude that is laced with ample parts of discipline, compassion, and understanding.

  • A willingness to admit that you don't know all the answers, coupled with the wisdom to show others where to look for more assistance.

  • Help and advice that go beyond technical issues and into such areas as work habits, organizational skills, and the setting of priorities.

  • An ability to share anecdotes and stories from your own hard-earned experience.

  • The courage to get into the head and heart of the person you're helping in order to individualize your advice. One approach doesn't fit all.

  • Patience, patience, patience.

But successful mentoring can't occur, says Dagarin, unless the individual being helped wants to be counseled. And that takes a healthy dose of humility on the part of younger engineers and a willingness to show respect for those who have been in the trenches for years. "The person being mentored must not be afraid to ask questions--no matter how stupid or embarrassing they may appear," says Dagarin. Open communications is also very important, so that a mentor can see the positive and negative results of actions that an individual has taken as a result of the mentor's advice. This is the only way that the mentor can monitor a younger worker's progress.

Management, of course, must encourage the process by publicly announcing and backing mentoring programs. And, in these days of corporate downsizing, management must insure that there are enough experienced hands on board to serve as mentors. In too many organizations, says Dagarin, young engineers are being left to their own devices, which retards professional growth and results in needless mistakes and project delays. If budgets are tight, Dagarin suggests that companies bring in retired engineers on a part-time basis.

Where mentoring flowers, companies will be rewarded in all kinds of ways, says Bernie. Mentors become reinvigorated by exposure to younger engineers. And those being helped advance faster and become more productive. As Dagarin puts it, "A good mentoring program will bring the organization a far greater sense of well-being and camaraderie than it can ever hope to achieve from consultant-run seminars and management pep talks."

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