Mentoring for the Future

Gary D. Strack, P.E.
Director, Structural Engineering
Shafer, Kline & Warren, Inc.
Overland Park, Kansas
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the tenth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

Do you think APWA is a useful organization? 29,000+ public works professionals evidently think so because they are members of APWA. Many of us became members because someone, perhaps a mentor, asked us to join. Having a mentor and becoming a mentor is an important stepping stone in our lives. However, many people hesitate to take this important step either at work or in APWA.

Mentoring—the word sounds so formal and definitive. It almost stifles creative thinking just thinking about the word. But it doesn't have to be formal; mentoring can take many shapes, and may happen without you knowing it. New and experienced colleagues watch you and how you handle situations even if you are not involved in a formal mentoring program. Additionally, many of us, me included, have watched senior staff (i.e., older than you) handle a situation well and adopt it as our way of attacking a similar situation without even realizing we have actually used a part of the mentoring process in this learning sequence. The advantage to having a mentor who is watching you try this method is that the mentor can provide you feedback on your performance. A formal mentoring process involves two individuals sharing information on a regular basis to transfer knowledge and guide the younger individual along a career path. And no matter how you tackle mentoring, make an effort to include an element of FUN. For instance, get away from the office at a local ice cream shop to discuss issues or learn more about each other.

Mentoring at the APWA Congress: APWA Director-at-Large George Crombie (left) instructs Saeed Kashi, P.E., Town Engineer, Town of Plymouth, Mass., how to get the most from his Congress experience at the 2004 First-Timers Meeting.

At first, it seemed obvious to me why we should be mentoring for the future. But then I realized, if it is so obvious, why isn't everybody/aren't all agencies doing/supporting a mentoring program? Some of it has to do with lack of time and some due to the feeling that "I will always be here." If you don't train someone to take your job, why should anyone consider advancing you to a more challenging position? We have to prepare those following us to take our jobs. Mentoring is essential to our profession and nation's future; it has become important enough that many agencies are beginning or considering a mentoring program. Now it is our turn to prepare the next generation to carry on.

Are you going to relinquish control to the next generation of leaders at the last moment and make them learn how to run your agency the hard way? Save them a bunch of time and trouble by making sure they have an opportunity to take advantage of your experience. Try to be humble enough to guide while they learn the ins and outs of the agency. This will entail allowing them to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Your job is to give guidance so the trainees avoid catastrophic errors. By taking an interest in your new person's education, you will stir their interest in staying with your agency and continuing the legacy.

Mentoring at the office: Steve Baker of Shafer, Kline & Warren shows Scott Williamson a set of plans for a wastewater treatment plant.

What is the future of your organization? Whether you are a public works agency or private company, your number one and two reasons for existing are to serve your clients and employees. Without either, your agency is nothing. Almost all agencies, public or private, are created by individuals wanting to serve, fill a need, provide a service, and provide a means to make a living for others. We all want to leave our mark (legacy) on the world, whether it is through our job, family, hobby or all of the above. Our legacy is one of the easiest things for people to become passionate about and act on.

Selecting a mentor is not something to take lightly. Qualities of a good mentor include being knowledgeable, experienced, patient, tolerant and encouraging. As a younger member of APWA, you can get to know your local chapter leaders and possibly ask one to be your mentor. Also, when you go to the APWA Congress, there are individuals in attendance who volunteer to be your mentor for the event and help you get the most out of the experience. As a distinguished (better word than "older") member, get to know the younger members in your chapter and offer to be their mentor. When choosing a young member to mentor, select one who shows proper respect, exercises honesty, and is committed to the profession. Try it, you will probably like it.

"A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could." - Unknown

When is the time to begin a mentoring program or work with a less experienced colleague? The answer is: yesterday would be best; today will be okay; and absolutely no later than tomorrow. Everyone learns at their own pace and having a mentor can actually accelerate the employee's progress through the learning curve. The shorter the length of time it takes each person to go through the learning curve for a selected task or position, the quicker the new person can take on additional responsibility and have better job satisfaction.

Why should you care if your agency continues on after you leave? I like Hans Finzel's quote, "Success without a successor is failure." And remember, the success of your successor is credited or discredited to your legacy. Your successors at work or in your professional organizations will be better if they have been mentored while gaining experience on the job.

Gary D. Strack will present an educational session entitled "Mentoring for the Future" (Sept. 9 at 2:00 p.m.) at the APWA Congress in San Antonio. He can be reached at (913) 888-7800 or

"One of the things I keep learning is that the secret of being happy is doing things for other people." - Dick Gregory

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give." - Winston Churchill

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment