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Everything you need to know about being a civil engineering mentor

11 August 2022

Esther Olorunfemi discusses why mentoring is important to you, your mentee and the industry. 

Everything you need to know about being a civil engineering mentor
One of Esther's mentor-mentee relationship is with her godson. Here they are at the London Transport Museum.

Being a good mentor is very simple.

You need to be approachable, relatable and available.

I’m currently an ICE supervising civil engineer (SCE), a professional workplace mentor to four engineers, a personal mentor to three mentees, and a manager leading a team of 25 engineers.

Here's what I’ve learned along the way.

Why is workplace mentoring important?

Mentoring is both important to the mentor and the mentee.

It provides the mentor an opportunity to develop people and line management skills (on a smaller scale). To the mentee, it provides a framework for support and advice.

The transition from studying to employment can be very daunting. Having someone who performs a similar role to that of a form tutor or university adviser can help smooth the migration from student to employee.

Without mentoring, industries will potentially miss out on an untapped pool of skilled individuals who need that one-to-one support to grow.

Why is mentoring important in leadership?

There are key differences in the responsibilities of a mentor and a leader.

Specifically, the number of interactions a mentor has versus those of a leader, and how the outputs are measured and successes evaluated.

Mentoring, however, is fundamental to good leadership.

A good leader will be remembered not just for the outputs of the team, but for the support given to individuals.

Did they feel supported? Were they given the space to grow? What knowledge and experience did they gain? What opportunities did they secure? These elements are directly attributed to your leadership.

When leadership and mentoring are aligned and done correctly, the next generation of leaders will emerge from that team.

What are some misconceptions about mentoring?

It’s not just in the workplace that mentoring is important.

As a mentor, you don’t need to be in the same profession or speciality as the mentee. They might not have decided on a profession yet.

Also, the mentee doesn’t have to be someone junior to you.

Mentoring can help anyone to reach their maximum potential, particularly those who may not have had your opportunities or experiences.

Regardless of your position in an organisation or life, you can still benefit from being a mentor or a mentee.

Why can mentoring fail?

Not understanding the mentee’s needs

There are so many reasons why mentoring can fail.

From my experience, the main one is not understanding what the needs of your mentee are, and what they hope to gain (or need) from the arrangement from the start of the mentor-mentee relationship.

There are many different needs a mentee might have:

  • gain practical experience,
  • develop technical knowledge,
  • obtain general career advice,
  • assist in articulating experience into a CV,
  • prepare for an interview,
  • provide a reference for an employer,
  • provide professional affiliation sponsorship, and
  • many more.

Not having the time and skills to provide that support

Equally important to understanding the mentee’s needs, is being competent to provide that support.

As the mentor, having expectations beyond the skillset or capability of the mentee can lead to an outcome where neither party benefits.

The same can happen if you don’t appreciate the development opportunity that being a mentor provides.

Sharing your personal biases developed through personal experiences can also result in failure and missed opportunities for the mentee.

Not having the time or failing to establish regular touch-in sessions can leave mentee’s feeling unsupported.

In turn, this may prevent them from becoming mentors or worse, model to their mentee how they were mentored.

How to find a mentee

Finding a mentee in the workplace is relatively easy as there tends to be an established framework for matching students and graduates to mentors.

Outside of work, I’ve found mentees through personal contacts, outreach work, word of mouth and social media.

Through my interactions with people, I actively offer my support or share the successes of those who I’ve mentored.

How to train to be a mentor

I attended a training course when I initially became an ICE mentor for the Graduate Training Scheme.

However, I think the best way to train to become a mentor is to reflect on the support that you received (or didn’t) and use that experience as your training framework.

How can mentoring benefit you professionally

Within my team, I’ve encouraged engineers to take on work experience students or support graduates on three-month placements to help develop their leadership skills.Then, they too can take on a mentoring role.

There are many benefits to mentoring. It helps you to recognise strengths and weaknesses, not just within the mentee, but within yourself as well.

The more mentoring you do, the better you become at adjusting your style to suit the individual, which is an incredibly valuable skill to master in the workplace.

How can mentoring benefit you personally

There are many reasons why being a mentor is personally rewarding. Here are a few:

  • Seeing the accomplishments and successes of people whose journey I’ve been a part of.
  • Seeing them excel in their careers, and model and replicate things that I’ve instilled in them.
  • Them still seeking my advice on career decisions long after the formal mentor-mentee arrangement has ended.
  • Hearing that the mentee’s CV, which I helped write, stood out from a pool of 600 applicants.
  • Hearing that an engineer was successful in the job which I helped them prepare for.

A good mentor-mentee relationship, built on trust and mutual respect, will develop into a permanent and mutually beneficial comfortable space. No matter the career paths that each takes.

We all take something from our past managers, leaders or mentors.

At a one-to-one with one of my managers many years ago, he told me that his job was to lead his staff to succeed him. This is how I lead and mentor the engineers in my team.

  • Esther Olorunfemi, head of engineering, London Trams at Transport for London