The art of civil engineering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is always someone impacted by your work. When we’re starting out, we don’t quite know the impacts of our decisions. When we progress further into our career, we can get overconfident and lose our ability to be empathetic. We get a degree or three, acquire professional licenses, rack up all manner of credentials with indecipherable acronyms, and yet we can still neglect to learn new truths, unlearn bad habits, and relearn best practices. Similar to how the majority of the population believes they are a better than average driver (who’s left to be average then?), consider for a moment there is indeed room to improve as a professional.
How do you continually learn no matter what phase of your career you’re in? Consult a mentor. Return the favor as well. Mentor a subordinate, colleague, or stranger. Perhaps you’re uncomfortable with the word mentor. How about coach? Even surgeons benefit from having coaches. Fortune 500 CEO’s are no different. Some were lucky enough to have been prepared by the great executive coach Peter Drucker or his contemporary Marshall Goldsmith before occupying the C-suite.
There are lots of resources available on the “who / what / when / where / why” of a mentor relationship. Go look them up (after you finish this post of course). If your employer has a formal mentor program, then take advantage of it. If they don’t, the best way to informally start a mentor relationship is to reach out to the professional organization you feel most passionate about. If you’re a senior director or executive, then by all means consider consulting a mentor now and again. The future of your organization will depend on it.
The best mentors make you feel comfortable yet challenged, help you connect with others yet stay in the background, and help impart an attitude of wisdom. Namely, a good mentor will convey the ability to act with knowledge while doubting what you know.
My favorite mentors related lessons learned through a story or memorable quote. Over the years I’ve written down these stories and quotes and store them for safekeeping. We don’t all have time to tweet, blog, journal, or what have you, but it’s easy enough to keep a physical or digital scrap where you can write down cherished lessons learned. Here are three favorite quotes of mine as shared by my mentors.
“If the man wants a green suit, sell him a green suit.” ~ Albert S.
Al was the first engineer I reported to when I finished school. When Al first repeated this quote to me, I thought I completely understood. But over a decade later, I’m still refining my understanding even as I repeat Al’s words to friends, colleagues, and superiors. We’re always “selling” whether it’s our services, points of view, or our desires. The other party sometimes just isn’t ready or doesn’t want to change. In that case, if you can’t “sell” exactly what they want, then point them in the direction where they can find it. They’ll be much happier they got what they wanted today and will remember you when they are ready to change their mind. True in business, politics, and personal life.
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” ~ General MacArthur
I worked for a senior project manager, Bill, who had a different point of view than mine, politically speaking. But Bill never made it an issue, and I for one respected him tremendously for it. In fact, Bill went out of his way to make sure he always heard a contrarian point of view before he made major project decisions that would impact the team. He never wanted to fly with blinders on. That’s not some cliché either, Bill was also a pilot. For some leaders, dissent is not an option. Bill taught me the importance of not succumbing to confirmation bias.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” ~Antoine de Saint Exupéry
You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t want to do. You can’t even force people to do things they actually want to do. Every first time task leader or project manager learns this lesson quickly. There are a handful of people who I’ve worked for who I consider to be true leaders. Of all the platitudes you hear about what constitutes a true leader, in my own experience these outstanding people were able to give vision, meaning, direction, and focus to the organization. To share your vision and hope others understand, you must also practice empathy. Why should people care? If you can’t answer or convince people, then it’s a good question to bounce off your mentor.
So don’t wait any longer. Go find a mentor, or two, or three. If you already have a network of mentors, reconnect. Give them a call. Check in. Yes we all get busy. But you’re never too busy to learn and improve. While the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now.
Featured Guest Blogger: Arthur Pazdan, P.E.
Project Manager, Civil Engineer, Polymath,
and a 2012 Mass Transit Magazine Top 40 Under 40 Winner