In this article, I will explore the nature of mentor-mentee relationships commonly observed in the industry. I will explore several aspects of mentor-mentee relationships and discuss some of the objectives for establishing a mutually enriching mentor-mentee relationship. I will conclude the article by briefly discussing the importance of some of the soft-skill attributes that all of us need to be aware of for the optimal success of the relationship.
Nature of evolution: biological versus professional
In my view, all human beings undergo evolution on predominantly two fronts. The first one is biological and starts with our birth. This evolution takes us through several phases of growth from toddler, adolescence, adulthood until old age. The second evolution front is professional and starts with primary education. Once we complete our basic school education, the subsequent phases of this professional front, however, differ significantly for different individuals. Some of us choose to continue the education while others complete professional education or training and start a job. The evolution on the biological front is engrained in our DNA, and the phases are not optional. On the other hand, the evolution on the professional front almost entirely depends on us and our surroundings. Our professional evolution is often influenced by several factors such as family, friends, professional connections, financial and health situations.
Over the years, we as human beings have perfected many of the professional career tracks. After completing our school education, we know how to achieve a professional career goal in most instances. This notion is especially apparent for many professional careers in engineering, medicine, finance, law, etc. In many of these professional tracks, a candidate completes his/her professional education and joins an organization (commercial or otherwise). Let us term organizations operational in the above professional tracks as industry or industrial sector.
In virtually all of the above sectors, the mentor-mentee relationship is essential and impacts the success of individuals associated with those sectors. The nature of the mentor-mentee relationship may differ substantially between these sectors. I will explore some of these intricate peculiarities in the industry in this article.
Mentor-mentee relationship in an industry
Most streams in the industry sector focus on customer satisfaction. The majority of the industry leaders persistently explore innovative ways to keep their products/services competitive while adhering to legal and environmental regulations. In general, in the industry, a mentor-mentee relationship may consist of an individual (typically with higher professional expertise) connecting with another individual (or group of individuals) typically with lesser professional expertise.
Development in the existing work stream
In many companies, the mentor-mentee relationship revolves around improving the mentee’s expertise within the same company. This is especially pertinent to small/medium scale companies operational in the specialized products/services sector. In these companies, the mentor is typically an individual’s immediate manager. In certain cases, individuals may choose to have a mentor who is a senior member in the same department (typically a few levels higher in the same department). A typical example could be an engineer choosing a vice-president of the department to be his/her mentor.
In one of the software development companies, a young engineer chose the head of the company as his mentor. The mentee was very introverted but had high career aspirations to establish himself as a technical expert. The mentor, through periodic discussions with the mentee, learned the mentee’s aspirations. She (the mentor) first guided him (the mentee) to first become proficient in the specific software domain immediately needed for his current projects. Simultaneously, she encouraged him to publish his ideas through blogs and technology user forums for wider impact. To help minimize his anxiety of public speaking, the mentor encouraged him to periodically speak about his work in local team meetings. Additionally, she encouraged him to participate in local/global technical conferences to present his work. Gradually over time and practice, his expertise and confidence grew, and eventually, he established himself as one of the experts in that programming domain successfully.
In certain instances, the mentor-mentee relationship may get stretched when the mentee is expected to deliver on a task that is outside his/her competency zone, and the reporting manager is the only mentor of the mentee. If the mentor assumes that his/her role is mainly to monitor the mentee’s delivery, then the gap in the mentee’s competency may not get appropriate attention. Consequently, this approach may lead to animosity between the two. One of the reasons for the emergence of such animosity is that many organizations work on the philosophy that the employee’s professional competency is not the organization’s concern, but rather the employee’s concern. In today’s fast-changing world, such a notion of ‘enough with education and now deliver’ approach can quickly put tremendous pressure on both mentor and mentee.
Such relationships may have limited success, especially when it comes to individuals benefitting from each other’s expertise on a wider professional front. One way to improve such relationships can be when both mentor and mentee take extra efforts to widen the scope of the relationship. These efforts can include topics that are peripheral to their project focus. Additionally, connecting on an informal basis outside work may also help immensely to build trust and help them to figure out ways to improve the mentee’s expertise. Both mentor and mentee should work persistently to improve the professional well-being of each other, even if that’s possible only with a limited scope.
Development in an alternate work stream
Another dimension in the mentor-mentee relationship in the industry is when a mentor guides the mentee in finding an alternate role in a different workstream within the same organization. This option is more pertinent in companies with multiple departments spread across wide geographical locations. In several such multi-workstream companies, typically, the senior leadership encourages career progression through the change of roles after having remained in the same role for a certain time. This approach ensures that a qualified candidate gets to work in several workstreams within the company (e.g., in production, controlling, marketing, etc.) while progressing in his/her career within the company. Naturally, many mentor-mentee discussions in such companies revolve around this topic on identifying an individual’s aspirations and potential progression path.
Typically, the mentor in such a relationship maybe someone from a different workstream who may or may not have any direct connection with the mentee’s current workstream (for example, an engineer choosing a mentor from the marketing department). To ensure success in such a “broad scope” relationship, both mentor and mentee must carefully outline the expectations from the relationship. They should also agree on topics to focus on for the discussions and act diligently to achieve the previously agreed goals. In such relationships, the mentor’s responsibility is to guide the mentee to develop essential skill sets required for the next role. On the other hand, the mentee should ensure that he/she maintains his/her competency in the existing department. Simultaneously, the mentee should take extra efforts to acquire the competencies required for his/her next role.
In a product company, an employee in the human resource (HR) department wanted to move into the digital marketing department within the same company. He (the mentee) found a suitable mentor (a senior manager) in the marketing department. While accepting to be his mentor, the senior manager strongly encouraged the mentee to search for another mentor in his current, HR department. The mentee was surprised by this suggestion. The mentor explained to him that the transition from one role to another role is complex and time-consuming. He must maintain his competency in his current HR role before developing his new skill sets in marketing. The best to way ensure this is to search for a mentor in the same HR department. Reluctantly the mentee agreed to this. In a few months however, the mentee realized that the discussions with his HR mentor are helping him immensely to keep his performance in check while he pursued to develop his marketing skills.
The mentoring sessions can also be of immense help to the mentee in resolving conflicts. In a technology innovation company, a scientist was transferred from one research department to another. Despite the transfer, she (the mentee) continued her periodic discussions with her mentor from her older department. She soon realized that her manager in her new role (who herself was a senior scientist) was not properly following the research protocols sometimes. Being new in the department, she (the mentee) was unsure how to address this sensitive issue. She started discussing this topic with her mentor. The mentor suggested to her to encourage in-person discussions with her manager rather than email communications, as a way to establish mutual trust and transparency. The mentor cautioned her that the written communication may often be interpreted incorrectly/defensively, and one must be extra careful to ensure that the email should not be mis-interpreted. He suggested her to be pragmatic in pointing out the gaps in the research protocols through curiosity rather than to blame the manager. The mentor also suggested her to document the proper practices, their outcomes and present those in the group meetings. Over time, through periodic discussions and proper documentation, the manager realized her own mistakes in skipping some of the protocols. The manager not only incorporated her practices in the research protocols but also recognized her persistent vigilance and determination.
Development in technology innovation work streams
Over the years, several companies have established themselves as drivers of technology innovation in virtually all industrial streams. These companies are quite active in creating innovations through research and development. Employees working in such research-driven workstreams (typically scientists) usually work in collaboration with academia or national laboratories. Due to the research-driven work, the mentor-mentee relationship in such workstreams can involve mentors with strong research backgrounds either from the same company or even from an academic institution. In such relationships, it becomes critical for a mentee to ensure that the discussions with an external mentor (say from a university) do not involve any exchange of confidential information. The exception is when the mentee’s company signs up a confidentiality agreement with the mentor or his/her institution for scientific collaboration. The discussion topics may include the development of research protocols or steps that the mentee may take to establish his/her scientific footprint in the research community.
These so-called “hybrid” mentor-mentee relationships (i.e., the mentor is from academia and the mentee is from industry) are becoming popular in the industry due to the complexity of research targets. Equally interesting is the reverse scenario, in which the mentor is from industry, and the mentee is from academia. Such relationships are prominent in business administration course programs. In such cases, a mentor typically holds significant leadership or management experience from the industry and guides the mentee (e.g., students enrolled in the course program) on improving business administration and leadership skills. In these relationships, typical discussions revolve around case studies from industry (e.g., success stories, failure stories, best practices) and how to derive learnings from those.
Importance of personal attributes in a mentor-mentee relationship
In previous sections, I explored a few flavors of the mentor-mentee relationship and its relevance to different aspects of industrial development. In this section, I would like to outline a few soft-skill attributes which both mentor and mentee should be aware of for having a fruitful relationship.
First, both sides must understand that communication is the key to this relationship. Second, both sides must outline the scope and objective of the relationship as openly as possible. This expectation management is critical in maintaining a healthy relationship. Third, both mentor and mentee should agree to keep the discussions confidential. The discussions often involve sensitive topics, and hence, both sides must adhere to strict moral standards. Fourth, the mentor must ensure to be respectful and empathetic towards the mentee’s concerns. It is often the case that the mentor (due to his/her significantly substantial expertise) tends to become judgmental. Such an attitude can make the mentee apprehensive towards the mentor and may eventually lead to deterioration in the mentor-mentee relationship. Last but not the least, the mentor-mentee relationship should be based on mutual trust.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the mentor-mentee relationship is critical for anyone aspiring to become a successful professional, whether in academia or industry. Besides the technical know-how, the relationship often helps the mentee in exploring his/her aspirations and finding ways to improve his/her skills. Expectation management is critical in such discussions, and both sides must adhere to the highest social standards, especially when discussing sensitive topics. Finally, I would like to say that establishing a healthy mentor-mentee relationship is like constructing a two-way street. As long as we properly define the origin and destination, the relationship will help us reach our goal in an enriching way.
Prasad Phatak is scientist and manager (digitalization) for BASF Chemicals India Private Limited. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”.