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According to Kate Allen, PE, MBA, “Mentoring is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s an imperative.” She believes it’s a great way to gain a competitive advantage in retaining and recruiting talent. Allen, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, joined Stambaugh Ness in 2021 as Director in its AE Advisory team. Headquartered in York, Pennsylvania, Stambaugh Ness is a multi-discipline professional services firm that supports architecture, engineering, and construction clients nationally. Communiqué spoke with Allen about the elements that help a mentoring relationship succeed.

Communiqué: How does mentoring differ from training?
Kate Allen: Training relies on “telling” and is primarily used to build technical competencies. Mentoring, or coaching, focuses on professional and personal development, with the more experienced mentor sharing their expertise with their mentee. Mentoring is conversation and exploration filled with curiosity and idea-sharing.

C: What’s the most important element in creating a formal mentoring program?
KA: A strong and visible commitment from the firm’s leaders. Without their support, you’re only dabbling in mentoring and it’s destined to become one more death by initiative. It must have buy-in from the top and be infused into the firm’s culture, so everyone gets on board.

C: How do you pair mentors with mentees for the most productive relationships?
KA: Mentees often look for the opportunity to learn from someone they respect and admire. I prefer to ask the mentee, “Which areas of personal or professional growth are you interested in and who do you think would be a good mentor for you?” Ideally, their choice is someone eager to share their expertise and willing to carve out time to connect.

C: How does the mentor assess which skills the mentee needs to learn or improve?
KA: At their first meeting, the mentee should outline the areas where they would like to learn and grow. The mentor might then ask probing questions to understand where the mentee is in their understanding of those areas, why they’re important to the mentee, and what a good outcome may look like. Good mentors can elicit the story behind the story.

C: What makes a good physical setting for mentoring conversations?
KA: Don’t meet in the mentor’s office, because you’re immediately creating a hierarchy. Meet somewhere you feel comfortable and can speak confidentially. These days, mentoring can also be done virtually. Wherever you meet, turn off your phones, take off your smartwatches, and start with some light conversation before jumping into the topic. Minimize distractions, give the mentee your full attention, and create a connection.

In your initial meeting, set clear expectations about each other’s level of commitment, engagement, and more.

C: What kind of ground rules do the participants need to establish?
KA: It’s the mentor’s responsibility to create a “psychologically safe space” for communication—a place where there are no dumb questions or comments, and judgment is “left at the door.” The mentee shouldn’t have to worry about what will happen to their career if they say something they perceive as “stupid” or disclose a weakness. The mentor encourages the mentee to put everything out there so they can talk about it and find the best path forward.

You both want to be active and effective listeners. When I teach active listening, I ask, “How often do you look in a person’s eyes, hold their gaze for a moment, and make them feel that you’re completely connected with and focused on them?”

C: How important is it for the mentor to be prepared to adapt to a mentee’s preferred styles of communication and learning?
KA: Extremely! I find that, in general, each generation has its own style. I’ve found Gen Xers to be very independent, so when mentoring them, I ask leading questions that they then can investigate.

On the other hand, when mentoring a millennial, my only assumption is that their style is probably different from mine. For example, a mentee recently left me a video update. While my first reaction was, “I wish I could just read this,” I realized that, when reading a long email from me, he may have been thinking, “I wish I could just watch this.” I sometimes need to back up and coach business communication skills they may not have used in their text-centered lives.

C: What’s an example of an obstacle to mentoring success?
KA: If I have a mentee who frequently shows up unprepared, I try to nip that in the bud. In your initial meeting, set clear expectations about each other’s level of commitment, engagement, and more. If these expectations aren’t met, by one party or both, then explore the cause and determine the best way forward, which may include continuing, putting the relationship on pause, or finding another match for the mentee.

C: When is it time to wrap up a mentoring arrangement?
KA: It depends. Some mentoring relationships will last a lifetime and others just a few months. If I find I’m no longer the best resource for a mentee’s continued growth in a specific area, I encourage them to move on to another mentor.

C: What can a mentor do to encourage open, honest, and constructive feedback from the mentee during the relationship or after?
KA: I like to keep it face-to-face and use what is known in Lean practices as the “plus-delta” approach. It’s a simple way of encouraging both mentor and mentee to discuss what’s working or has worked well and what can be or could have been done better. Again, it depends on having that safe space for communication. You don’t want the mentee thinking, “Am I at risk if I answer this question or do you truly want to know?” Make sure it stays constructive, both sides benefit from it, and the outcomes are adopted for future meetings.

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