Mentoring is a full-time job

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Wherever you are in your career, think back to the path you have taken to reach your current destination. Probably you can list specific "action items" that you accomplished, such as obtaining a degree or completing a certification course. But most likely, you also have a list of people who have guided your progress and in some cases shaped your life. The influence of these mentors (whether in a formal or informal sense) has helped you achieve your success. Your professional behavior is most likely modeled after one or more of your career or personal mentors.

For example, one of the reasons I'm writing articles for the APWA Reporter is that my eighth-grade English teacher was tough, inspirational and motivational. Had I not wandered across her path and had she not taken an interest in me, I would not have the courage or the skill to write articles for a prestigious professional magazine.

Since that time, I have had many other people influence my career and my life. In my senior year in college, the owner of a local excavating company gave me a summer construction job that was (looking back) way over my head. He gave me an opportunity to learn my limitations and then improve myself. He gave me guidance when needed and he allowed me to make "rookie" mistakes. The lessons I learned that summer about dealing with people, taking responsibility and having confidence carried with me for over twenty years. I also learned how to be a good mentor. In hindsight, I should have been paying him to gain such great experience.

Even now, as a twenty-five-year veteran of public works and engineering, I find that I have many opportunities to learn from other people. I even find that sometimes these people are younger and less experienced than I am, but yet they bring a perspective that maybe I haven't considered.

Typically, when you consider a mentoring relationship, you envision the mentor as a wise older gentleman with many years of experience with distinguished gray hair teaching a young neophyte about the ways of the profession. However, in reality most mentoring takes place in the form of relationships where people learn from each other. It is rarely so one-sided, especially in a professional context.

There's always plenty of mentoring during the First-Timers Meeting at our annual Congress. Here, George Crombie (left), APWA Director-at-Large for Environmental Management and 2002 Top Ten recipient, chats with Saeed B. Kashi, Town Engineer, Town of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

A few years ago, at my first APWA Congress, I signed up to be a mentor in the Emerging Leaders program, as I was the older person with gray hair. Although I may have provided some guidance to my younger counterpart, she was already very active in APWA and actually inspired me to become more involved. As a result of talking with her, I volunteered for the Leadership and Management Committee and here I am today writing an article about mentoring.

One lesson I've learned is that you never know whether you are the mentor or the mentored. As a public works professional you have frequent opportunities to be a role model to others and you have opportunities to be mentored by others. The public works profession is all about working with people.

As a leader, your behavior is always observed. Whether you realize it or not, you are leading by example. As an analogy, you are most likely one of your city's "celebrities." Although you probably don't make millions per year, you are visible and known to the community. You are in the newspaper and on TV. How you handle issues and challenges gets discussed at dinner tables throughout your community. Because you are so visible, you have no choice but to be a role model and a mentor. Consequently, you should always consider your behavior and how it might influence others. What messages are you sending when you speak to the kids at school during career day, when you talk to the media about a failed over-budget project, when you address a town meeting about an upcoming project that will impact their neighborhood? Are you consistently demonstrating some core leadership competencies—integrity, decisiveness, accountability, respectfulness and resiliency?

Another opportunity for both mentoring and learning is to take the initiative to proactively mentor your staff or others that may benefit from your experience. You probably have people on your staff who could, with a little of your influence, contribute much more to your organization. As a leader, if you invest your time in mentoring these potential superstars it will pay off tremendously for you and your organization. It also brings great personal satisfaction to help others succeed and reach their potential.

On the other side of the equation are the opportunities you may have to learn from others. Because you frequently interact with citizens, elected officials, and other public works professionals, you have unlimited opportunities to learn from others and fine-tune your leadership skills. Pay careful attention to those around you by listening more than talking. You cannot learn anything while you are talking. For the next few days, measure the amount of time you are listening (L) vs. the amount of time you are talking (T). If your L:T ratio is less than 1, then you need to work on the listening part of your communications skill set. Don't discount those with less experience and less gray hair. Almost everyone has something to offer. Over twenty years ago, I learned about managing people from a heavy equipment operator who could not read or write. He mentored me (although I didn't know it at the time) and helped me become a better manager.

The public works profession is an extraordinary arena for learning and teaching. Most of us go about our day-to-day busy jobs and don't realize that we are mentors and role models. Next time you are in a meeting, think about how your actions are viewed by others in the room. Are you someone they look up to, someone they recognize as a leader? Don't forget that you may be influencing someone else's career choices or leadership behavior by your actions.

Although we may sometimes feel "powerless" in our jobs, we always have the power to teach others through our own behavior. We also have tremendous opportunities to learn from others in our professional and personal lives. Take advantage of those opportunities to improve your leadership skills, so that you can be a better role model for those looking up to you.

Whether you are teaching or learning, in the public works profession mentoring is a full-time job!

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or at hanns@palmbayflorida.org.

The publication Taking Charge! The Captain's Guide to Developing Effective Leading and Managing Skills explores what it takes to become a good captain to your people by developing effective leading and managing skills. Leadership in the New Age of Public Works with John Luthy, a CD-ROM, covers leadership competencies; the hard realities of recruitment, retention, and employee development; and the qualities of situational leadership. Both can be ordered online at www.apwa.net/bookstore or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 5254.