If I objectively analyze the foundation of my construction career, I find that my CEO title probably can be credited to several guys in jeans and dirty boots. It was not a professor but a contractor-entrepreneur who most encouraged and inspired me by serving as my first mentor and guide. He was spare with praise but long on wisdom; he found ways to put me in the front row for life lessons. Jobsites, negotiations and even a beer at the bar all became mentor’s tools to connect me, an ambitious and raw rookie, with my potential. Simply put, he saw talent in me that I could not see, and he helped to bring it out.
I believe the majority of ENR readers are like me: You did not get where you are without someone mentoring you. I think of mentoring as someone taking a personal interest—someone with whom a real connection of trust, communication and mutual benefit can be made. Mentoring is a very powerful motivational and developmental tool that plays a key role in most of our personal and professional lives. It has helped shape our industry.
Construction’s tradition of mentoring is now at risk, but I was unaware of the decline until recently. Each year I make presentations to a variety of construction leaders. I ask them the same question: How many of you received mentoring on your career path? More than nine out of 10 raise their hand. Then I ask, How many of you are mentoring someone now? Less than two out of 10 say yes. That weak response is startling, and it’s in our interests to find out why and do something about it.
I have asked those who don’t mentor anyone why, and they tell me, “The kids today are not willing,” “It’s not worth the time,” or “I don’t have the time.”
On the other hand, when I ask young industry leaders why they think they can’t obtain mentoring, I often hear them say, “They think mentoring is yelling instead of showing us how to succeed,” or “No one has offered, and I don’t know how to find someone to mentor me.”
These responses speak to both a generational disconnect and a devaluing of the mentoring time investment.
Addressing these obstacles is vital. Beyond the current economic challenges, our industry faces unprecedented demographic succession challenges. The looming retirement of the baby-boom generation will profoundly challenge construction and engineering. There has never been a time in our industry when mentoring has had more of a potential upside.
My point is not one presented as a moral imperative or benevolent obligation; it is a bottom-line business strategy that could mean success or failure for the industry.
I suggest three strategies that all industry leaders should adopt to ensure mentoring does occur. First, all companies should perform a demographic analysis of their workforce and integrate mentoring into their succession planning. Next, managers, leaders and supervisors need to be made to understand the operational and economic necessity of mentoring. Finally, all young people need to know how to find a mentor. Both collegiate and apprentice programs need to assist them. They need to know how to find someone who is willing to invest in them.
As was done for me, I now mentor several young people. I meet with or call them monthly. I hear about their lives, work, relationships, dreams and problems. Mostly, I listen. When I do speak, I know it matters. My payoff is the realization that I have often done the right thing for the right reason for the right person—and that’s enough.
Mentoring is the last and final gift a leader gives to his employees, his organization and industry. I hope you will take the time to help someone else obtain the rewards and accomplishments that construction has given to you.
Let’s not let our great tradition of mentoring die.