Who Was Your Mentor?
In a recent discussion with a client about the role of mentoring in technician development, I reminisced about one of the key mentors in my own career, and after some consideration, I decided to share this story to hopefully help stimulate some discussion on Mentoring.
During my Navy nuclear power training (1984-1987) I was NOT the top student. In fact, I was one of the bottom students by the time I started the last stage of my training. Over the previous 2-years I had barely made it through Nuclear Power School and several other challenging technical schools, and I was several weeks into the last 6-months of my training (Nuclear Prototype Training), but even though I was studying upwards 80 hours per week, I was still falling behind. I was maxed out and it just didn't seem to be enough.
In the old USN nuclear program, each student got an advisor about 8 weeks into prototype training to help steer their development and monitor their progress. This advisor was referred to as your "SeaDad".
By a lucky twist of fate, the SeaDad I was assigned was a guy with the nickname of "Reactor Bob". Bob had a reputation of being an extremely knowledgeable Reactor Operator / Technician, as well as being a patient instructor, and he had a calm, sort of sagely demeanor. Having Bob assigned as my advisor was definitely one of the 'lucky breaks' in my career...
Bob knew how hard I was working and knew that I was very discouraged because I felt I was so far behind the other Reactor Operators in my class. But he gave me two pieces of advice that changed the entire trajectory of my career:
1 - He told me to stop 'cramming' or trying to quickly 'memorize' material for 'checkouts' and told me to just focus on fully understanding the concepts as I studied them, and to try to relate it all to the real world as much as possible. He told me to relax and try to enjoy learning. I remember him saying something to the effect that "this is a nuclear power plant, and it's really interesting - and we get paid to learn about it!" He was right - I had signed up for the nuke program because I was a nerd and was fascinated with engineering and technology - so why was I now treating this super cool training like drudgery, just because it was hard?
2 - He also told me that all the "geniuses" that I felt were so far ahead of me, would typically stop learning as soon as they finished their training. He said that if I just kept constantly learning (even after completing training), that I would catch up and would even pass them by. When someone who has earned a nickname like "Reactor Bob" gives you that kind of advice, it makes an impression! I felt like I had been given a secret recipe. So, I did exactly what he said. And I have used his secret recipe ever since (37 years and counting).
Then, I started doing better! And the better I did, the more I relaxed and focused on actually learning, and the better and better I did... All the theory that I had struggled with in Nuclear Power School was suddenly making sense in the real world and it was all coming together. It was amazing! For the first time in my schooling, I felt confident, and I was doing really well. I was truly enjoying it! By the end of my Nuclear Training, I had climbed close to the top of my class, and by a combination of miracles, I was even selected to stay on as a staff instructor.
The experience in my Nuclear Prototype Training had a huge impact on me, and it changed how I view learning (from both ends). It also caused me to develop an appreciation and passion for teaching, mentoring, and coaching people. It is probably fair to say that I have been trying to emulate "Reactor Bob" ever since.
Reactor Bob didn't realize what a tremendous impact he had on me at that time. In fact, I didn't fully realize it myself until long after I had graduated from my nuclear training. (Yes - I did get to thank him personally many years later!).
Never underestimate the impact YOU can have on someone simply by providing some direction, help, encouragement, guidance, or even by pushing them or challenging them to do hard things. It won't always result in success - but sometimes it will...
I should note that some of the other great mentors and influences in my journey have had to push me really hard at times, and it wasn't always easy or enjoyable on my end (or theirs probably) - but I'm appreciative of each of them as well, as I look back at what I learned and gained from them.
Unfortunately, industry has largely shifted away from using systematic mentoring as part of the developmental effort, and I feel it is one of the reasons for the growing skills gap that we are seeing across all industries. I have been around long enough to see countless examples of the impact that a single good mentor can have on the techs they work with, and sadly I have also seen many examples of the contrasting situation.
The apprenticeship programs that were once commonplace across industry did a great job of transferring the knowledge from the most experienced workers to the developing techs as they grew and gained experience. But those apprentice & mentorship programs are few and far between now and it shouldn't surprise us that new techs aren't developing like they did back when we had those programs... Strategic, systematic mentoring is one of several important tools needed to truly develop and grow talent.
I'm very grateful that I had Reactor Bob as a mentor, and I often wonder how I would have done if I wouldn't have had that great mentoring at that critical point in my training?
My bet is that most of you reading this article have received similar mentoring, help, or guidance at various points of your own life.
Hopefully, you are pondering some of the people who have been helpful to you along your journey (in your career, life, faith, etc.)... In the comment section, I'm going to list a few other folks who have mentored (or guided) me at various points, and I'd ask those of you reading this to list some of the great coaches, teachers, supervisors, peers, or others who have guided or helped you succeed, to help illustrate the value and importance of good mentoring.
Lastly - I'd encourage each of you to try to help someone achieve something or to grow in some way! Perhaps on something they didn't know they could do...! Because they just might surprise everyone - including themselves!
I welcome input and discussion centered around helping advance today's technical workforce. If you have input, or have topic ideas, or simply would like to brainstorm how you can better integrate mentoring into your organizational strategy, feel free to contact me.