Consider Mentoring

Vance Hall
Robert A. Vance Hall on the campus of Central CT State University, housing the School of Business.

One of the things that hasn’t changed much since the mid-70s when I graduated from college is the notion that college is an artificial environment and that college graduates don’t understand the “real world” in which they are trying to / being asked to work. I’m not talking about the pay-your-own-way real world or the don’t-be-late-for-things real world. I’m talking about when you start to realize that your job depends on a bunch of skills that they didn’t teach you in school.

I don’t know if I ever had a job where I was hired for what I learned in college. It didn’t help that my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, but that’s another story. My graduate degree was in business, specifically Operations Research, however I was hired to be a programmer/analyst. I talked my way into my first job, and from there, I was hired for my experience, not my education. I guess that’s the way it works.

As I look back on the courses that I took in college, the courses that served me for the shortest period of time were the ones that were specific to my major. I took courses on planning and managing information services based on the centralized data center model of business in the 70s. Less than five years after I graduated from graduate school, IBM started selling the PC and my work-a-day world was changed forever. Within a few years, speakers at conferences were openly mocking the “obsolete notions” that I had worked so hard to learn in school.

I’m pretty sure it’s harder for graduates today. I enjoyed five years of “business as usual” or “business as I understood business to be” before IBM planted the seeds of change, and those seeds took several years to really sprout into fundamental change. Today’s graduates are watching the workplace change as if someone hit the fast-forward button.

What students might not understand about the real world, is that there are some fundamental skills or work practices that never become obsolete. When I asked one of my early employers why he hired me, he said: “I want people in my department who work hard. Getting a degree in chemistry requires hard work.” I had been hoping that he was impressed that I had studied Operations Research in graduate school, but they actually only had a very small need for those skills, and a coworker of mine was handling it pretty well.

Hard work is a timeless quality that is appreciated in the workplace. The ability to manage a project, manage your own time, work well in a group and communicate with other human beings are skills that are also valued. We all have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate how we got that ‘A’ in Managerial Finance, but thousands of people also got an ‘A’ in that course. Success is built on the fundamentals beneath those A’s.

Last week, I had the honor of presenting a guest lecture in a technology class at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). The subject was Big Data but I don’t want you rolling your eyes, so I’m not going to talk about that. Actually, I didn’t talk much about Big Data in that classroom.

I shared with this class of hoping-to-be information workers a bit of reality. A few things they should keep in mind if they want to have a less frustrating and more rewarding career.

I talked to them about the need to focus on adding value to the business process in which they are or will soon be involved. I also told them that as they grow in their career, they need to expand that focus. “Will the project you are proposing add value?” “Is the data you are collecting really useful? Can it be made to be useful? Or, are you doing something just because you can?

I gave examples of projects that I’ve been involved with that were best characterized as “technology for technology’s sake” – something that cost more money or took more time than the resulting system would ever save.

Mentoring is the act of sharing some of the real world experience you’ve accumulated with the people who are going to follow you into the workplace. For the students that I work with, I can’t add anything to their technical education, but I think I can add to their understanding of the workplaces they are about to enter.

Finding opportunities to mentor is easy. It’s even easier if you don’t get hung up on the word. You may be asked to serve as a mentor to a high school or college class, group project or team effort. You may be asked to tutor individual students who are struggling with math or science or writing or public speaking. You may be invited to present a guest lecture. You may be asked to serve on a committee where your experience/expertise could help them make better decisions and recommendations. The company you work for might hire an intern and you might be asked to work with him/her. Oh, and you don’t have to wait to be asked, schools and colleges are always looking for people who are willing to volunteer.

38 thoughts on “Consider Mentoring

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  1. Excellent post, Dan. I work for a small (about 135 employees) private company. They offer us the opportunity to mentor through Big Brothers/Big Sisters. But what about on the job mentoring? I think some departments have such a big turnover because they have no one there to mentor them. You can read the job description all you want but there is nothing like having someone right there to guide you through. Mentoring is a true blessing.

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    1. Thanks Lois. We have a small company and we are actively working on succession planning so mentoring there is required, but it’s also rewarding. I have had the benefit of having mentors and I have seen people actively avoid helping younger coworkers. I hope to be able to share some of these stories.

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  2. Really timely post for our family, Dan, as my son is interviewing for internship positions, and there’s one in particular he really wants. (We secretly want him to get that one, too.) Wouldn’t it be spectacular if someone who only met him as an infant took him under his wing 21 years later? I think so.
    The Mister likes to smirk at profs who give that “in the real world” speech! Often, he’s been older than the prof tossing around their wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope that works out for him. Our daughter works for a company that two friends started in the early 90s. One left that company for many years. After our daughter started working there, our friend returned and now she works for him. He is one of the best mentors on the planet and I am so happy that she works for him.

      As for the mister, I would imagine he has more “real world” experience than most professors. I was working three part-time jobs while in grad school. When the professors said things like “once you get into the real world, you will understand that this (school) workload is nothing by comparison” I wanted to smack them.

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  3. Dan, this is yet my favorite post. I know what you mean. I understand it. When we graduated, we came out with big heads. Electrical Engineering is a great course and we expected big rewards. I specialized in Telecommunications and Microwave Design. My final project was on a small signal microwave amplifier working at 2.4GHz with a 20% bandwidth for Bluetooth, cellphone, etc. I got an A (equivalent to your A+). So I came to the world with a terrible ego and too high hopes, telling everyone that all wanted was to design. Hell, man! What a reality! What a monster! I found that nobody needed such skills in Kenya. They needed people to maintain systems, not design them; they are already designed in the West or China, wherever they are imported from. The Telecom firms wanted the same or were laying fiber optics around the city. The consultancy firms, which said on their websites that they designed telecom circuits, were in fact involved in using AutoCad to design power and structured cabling distribution for buildings and other structures that require them. And they paid graduates next to nothing. My first job was as a highway lighting engineer–can you believe it? Nothing to do with telecoms. I was overseeing the design, tender documentation, cable laying, and everything else involved in lighting highways. It was a good job by the standards here. But, man! the corruption there! It was a government agency and it was a hub of bribery and venality. There were Chinese firms involved and those fellows do bribe locals like crazy. The big guys were very dubious, underhand, scheming, everyone looking for the easiest opportunity to score some secret bucks. They cut deals before there were deals to cut. It was scary. Even the tendering was bullshit because the contractor was already known before the document was ready. The contractors ignored my designs and did not use the materials specified in the Bills of Quantities. And if I complained, nobody gave a shit. I felt really frustrated. Eventually I quit for a private company. One day I met with the lecturer who supervised my project. We had become friends when he taught us Semiconductor Physics in 2006 and later Analogue Electronics in 2007. I told him about my experience outside class and asked him they taught things they knew the market did not require. He said that is how the system is. He said if I wanted to design microwave equipment, I should not even go back to the University of Nairobi. I should go to the UK, the US, or Germany and never come back. NEVER COME BACK!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is sad Peter but I know exactly how you feel (except for the bribery parts). When I moved to Connecticut, I took a job as a consultant. The partner that hired me “said” he was impressed with the classwork I had taken and the training I had in design and development in my earlier jobs. Six months later, I wrote a proposal for a systems design project and he edited it back to using what he thought were “proven” methods vs. the ones he said he hired me for. I complained and he said “I hired you because you look like a consultant.” By the time I was in a position of authority, everything I had learned in school and in my early jobs had been replaced by more modern thinking on the subject of systems design. And, I never even got any bribes :)

      I hope you have been able to find meaningful work.

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  4. Excellent post and nudge toward sharing our lifeskills with others. This is one I’ll hold on to because it’s worth more than a passing read. Elements to talk about with my stepson as well as our grandkids. Not to mention thinking about what I have to offer. Well done!

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  5. As I was reading your post I thought of the classic movie, “To Sir With Love,” how he took a classroom of bored, miss-directed miss-fits and taught them how to survive in the world in which they lived. He gave them hope, love and respect. Only then did he gain their attention and desire to make change their attitudes so they could better learn and understand. Great post. Great challenge for those who have the skills and creativity to teach and help people who are in a rut.

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    1. I will gladly accept even a passing comparison to Sidney Pottier in that movie. He was perfect in that role. Finding a way to reach people is essential. I didn’t get that until I was well into my career. Thanks for the comment Sandy.

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  6. Until I read this post, I hadn’t thought all that much about my college education. I went to two community colleges and one university. For just the joy of learning, the university won, hands down. However, as for practical knowledge that could be used in the working world, the community colleges helped me the most.

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    1. Looking back, I like that I learned a disciplined approach to problem solving while studying chemistry. In studying business, I actually learned some stuff, but mainly things that helped me talk to other business people, not things that helped me directly in my job (except that talking to them was part of my job). Community colleges are more focused on job skills. I think there’s room for larger universities to move in that direction. Maybe that’s why this professor brings in mentors and guest speakers.

      Thanks for the comment Glynis.

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  7. So true, Dan. Nothing we learn in school, however useful, can replace time spent with people who have worked in a particular industry and have the insights that only experience can teach. I have the opportunity from time to time, for example, to speak to intern classes about writing and editing, but I also include tips about working with people more effectively and exercising good judgment — anything to give them a leg-up that they won’t get from a textbook. Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Writing and editing are skills that are sorely lacking among graduates today Paul. I applaud you for helping with those skills. As for “exercising good judgment” I think you might have your hands full but a worthy challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dan, I couldn’t agree with you more how life experience is more important than the actual education. Yes, I learned my career, and without that education would not have been able to step into the shoes of an RN. Yet, MOST of what I learned in college was actually useless, and yes I too went to school before the computer. Long hand notes. Everything written by hand. If that alone did not get those brain cells going, I don’t know what will! I also live my life, even though not officially working, with the attitude, if I can possibly help you, or show you something I have learned thereby increasing your knowledge base, then I am more then happy to do so. Being a mentor, especially the more one ages, is SO important. Why? Because this world has become so materialistic focused, injuring in so many ways family values. A career is not the end all, bigger and better is not the way to happiness by a long shot.

    I close by saying, I have a brother who is a genius, who is constantly inventing huge robotic type instruments for the hospital he works in, to be used in the OR. Due to the fact he does not have a college education, he does not get paid appropriately, nor is he allowed to patent his work. I keep telling him to take a chance to patent designs and NOT give them to that hospital because darn it, he deserves the recognition, and the money as well. I’ve seen his work, Dan. It boggles the mind what my brother does. Now in his case, his life experience and brains are giving him a means to design technical machines, but his self-confidence has been chipped away all because he does not have a college education. Yep, what a world we do live in!!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. What a shame that a hospital would basically exploit someone’s talent. I understand the whole “you work for us, your stuff is our stuff” bit, but lots of places let individuals share in the benefits of inventions. Thanks, as always for your comment and for supporting this blog.

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      1. I apologize for the ramble, Dan. I am in the middle of so much cleaning and am literally running from my computer and back to what I am doing. Words just poured out. Ooops. I’m hoping one day my brother learns to stand up for himself and say enough. I know I went off on a tangent on you. Love, Amy

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  9. This is excellent advice. Having been out of the workforce for almost thirteen years now, I find the prospect of returning to work exciting, instead of intimidating. In that time, my ego is gotten smaller and focus on the important things (hard work, thoughtfulness, big picture and small picture thinking and efficiency) grown. These are qualities that are never outdated, but that college graduates don’t always posses because they are young. I am sure you are a great mentor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure that I’m great, but I keep getting invited back. You make a good point about skills graduates might not have because they are young. It’s important for managers to point those things out to new hires or younger people who show signs of needing improvement in these areas. As others have pointed out, you can mentor anyone. Thanks for the comment.

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  10. Dan – what a nice call for folks to consider mentoring! and it really can be so rewarding – and I think it can be things like this that keep folks fresh in life – also, your talk on big data sounds interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think it is wonderful you are mentoring and offering advice to college students. I think hands on experience is so important but I do have one thing to say about learning the theory at least when in comes to Nursing or Teaching. In my Nursing education at the college level I learned about physiology and other sciences. This taught me how the body worked and then I could understand disease and how to interpret the symptoms of when the body was not working like it should. I learned the principles behind the treatments. For example what type of wound care to use and why and how it works not just how to do it. My education also gave me something pretty important which are critical thinking skills. It is the ability to make observations and take in all the data and be able to analyze it intelligently. There really is a difference between bachelor degree educated Nurses and those who get a quick course in a year to 1 1/2 years to get a license. The Nurses with the Bachelor degrees have the knowledge base to supplement any practical experience they may acquire. I went back to college to get a teaching credential for the same reason. I wanted the knowledge base to back up my work with kids.

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    1. There are many benefits to a college education, but you do need to focus on which ones stand the test of time. For me, chemistry taught me how to solve problems, particularly problems with lots of unknowns. I’ve used that “skill” ever since. Critical thinking skills are woefully in short supply from today’s graduates (IMO) and that’s an amazing skill set to have. Thanks for the comment Deborah.

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  12. A well written post. I am glad and sad at the same time. Glad that there are people like you that understand how things work and should be handled. On the other hand, sad because I don’t find people like you here. India tries to imitate West, but fails pathetically on many levels. Leaders here are more concerned about their individual growth and score and rarely provide freedom to their subordinates or juniors or empower them to think independently. And then they say we have a talent crunch in the country. Simply Pathetic.

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    1. I once mentored a student in India over IRC Chat (gives you an idea of how long ago that was). He was studying for an exam so that he could get a job programming in Smalltalk, the language I was using at the time. He needed help with a poorly documented segment regarding database access. It was difficult to conduct teaching over chat and email, but we managed. I was chastised by several of my US peers for helping someone who would eventually “take our jobs” so it isn’t just sad on your side of the world Sharukh. There’s plenty of sadness to go around.

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