Beyond book knowledge
Mentoring from experienced safety professionals gives the next generation advice to draw on
- Mentoring relationships can develop informally or through a program offered by the employer or an outside organization.
- Mentees can receive guidance on their career direction or difficult projects while mentors receive the benefit of helping someone else.
- Safety professionals say mentors should be non-judgmental and share personal stories.
A couple of years ago, Timothy Puyleart was sitting in a meeting with other safety leaders when it hit him – he was in his 40s, and he was the youngest person there. It was then that Puyleart understood the importance of having a succession plan and training younger workers to one day take on his role.
“Clearly we need to be working with the younger people in our profession because they’re going to be in our shoes,” said Puyleart, global health, safety, security and environmental director at Menomonee Falls, WI-based Actuant Corp. “It’s up to us to help them prepare for that and be successful.”
One way to accomplish this is through mentoring. Whether the relationship is informal or part of a program, mentoring is a way for experienced safety professionals to help younger ones develop by passing along knowledge, skills and career advice.
Mentoring also is becoming a business imperative as safety professionals retire or leave for new ventures, taking decades of institutional knowledge with them.
Need for mentoring
In 2011, NIOSH warned of an upcoming shortage of qualified environmental, health and safety professionals based on a 2008 survey of employers. The prediction demonstrates the urgency of making sure information-sharing is taking place, according to Carl Heinlein, former president of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals in Champaign, IL.
Heinlein, now a senior safety consultant with Dallas-based American Contractors Insurance Group, asked a simple question: If an employee with 35 years of experience retires, how does the employer capture that knowledge?
“We can’t continue to lose that information walking out the door,” he said, noting that some lessons cannot be learned from a book.
During his 20-year career, Heinlein has had informal mentors who basically said, “I’m here if you need me,” as well as more formal mentors who checked in on a regular basis.
“Not only have they pushed me professionally, but along the way they’ve certainly offered professional guidance, support, the shoulder to cry on, the kick in the butt when I needed it,” Heinlein said.
Cody Jennings, electrical safety instructor at Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Johnson City, TX, said experienced workers can help newcomers develop proper work behaviors.
“You’re passing along knowledge of a craft – meaning if I don’t pass down my skills to a younger lineman, then he won’t be able to pass anything down to the next guy,” Jennings said. “What’s happening in the utility industry now is so many people are retiring and leaving, and they’re taking their knowledge with them, and the young workforce has nothing to draw on.”
Jennings recalled that his supervisor started mentoring him on his first day as a lineman 28 years ago. “One of the key things my supervisor told me is try to start every day the same,” he said.
In the same manner that he would wake up, brush his teeth, shave and shower in a particular order every morning, Jennings developed a habit for installing electrical wiring to avoid making mistakes. “And if you went out of that any one way, your brain would kick in and say, ‘I’m not supposed to be doing that in this sequence,’” Jennings said. “It worked real well because when you got down to the bottom of the pole, you knew you had done everything correctly. You would glance up at the top of the pole and look, but you knew.”
Some organizations have formal programs that pair a new employee with a more senior worker. Heinlein gave the example of a firm that asked its retirees to come back to the office and share their knowledge with new safety professionals or engineers.
Another approach is offering employees a financial incentive to spend a certain number of hours working with a new hire. The key, Heinlein said, is to choose mentors who have a track record of being safe and productive.
Mentoring does not have to be reserved for recent graduates entering the workforce. Workers who are taking on a new task or transitioning to a role in safety also may benefit from one-on-one coaching. Heinlein said EHS and human resources departments should work together to develop a mentoring program, including when the mentoring will start and how long it will last.
Noting that a new hire is an investment, Heinlein said mentoring programs are a way to embrace new employees and “make certain we’re helping these folks have an opportunity to succeed.”
Mentoring also can occur outside the workplace. As director of the central region for the Falls Church, VA-based American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Mentoring Program, Christine Hoehn pairs students and early career professionals with mentors. In her experience, developing a relationship involves being diligent about having regular phone or face-to-face meetings.
“It really takes the effort on both of their behalves to make it work, and if they put effort in it, it works 100 percent,” she said.
Hoehn, an industrial hygienist at Praxair Inc., which is headquartered in Danbury, CT, said the program has about 90 mentor/mentee pairs this year. Each participant is given a manual that outlines expectations. Hoehn said mentees often have questions about their career direction, and mentors serve as a sounding board and technical resource. They may offer advice on transitioning from college to the work world or help with a difficult work assignment.
When her mentee was having trouble choosing between job offers last year, Hoehn advised her to compare the employers and see which job fit more with her interests. “I helped guide her through what she wanted to do by asking the right questions,” Hoehn said.
Being a good mentor
Puyleart has mentored direct reports as well as graduate students who have reached out to him at conferences. He said mentoring can be especially helpful for issues typically not covered in school, such as being a leader and influencing others.
Puyleart recommends that mentors take an unbiased approach. He said that when people have come to him after making a serious mistake, instead of scolding them he asked questions such as “What did you learn?” and “What would you do differently?” Mentors should “take more of a nurturing or coaching stance,” Puyleart said, adding that people will feel more comfortable when they know their mentor will not judge them.
Jennings has taken a similar approach in his interactions with younger linemen. Recognizing that interpersonal skills are just as important as technical know-how, he said he has talked to them about the importance of asking for everyone’s input and keeping an open mind.
Jennings finds that telling stories helps people relate. As he put it, “Pull them off to the side and talk to them on a personal level instead of being an instructor telling them something as a student.”
Rewards of mentoring
Hoehn said mentoring also benefits mentors. They receive the personal satisfaction that comes from helping someone, and they can learn about new technology from the younger generation. Also, new safety professionals tend to be excited about their work, and the enthusiasm can rub off on a longtime safety professional.
When looking for a mentor, Jennings said to choose someone who exhibits stability and reliability – both on and off the job – and has a positive attitude. Puyleart recommends picking a mentor whose personality and management style are consistent with yours or what you aspire to be.
He also suggested having more than one mentor. “I think it’s critical coming into the profession that people network with as many people as they can and build those relationships because I might not have the answer for the situation that you’re in, but if you have a network you can always rely on more than one person,” Puyleart said.
Heinlein noted that the best mentors take an interest in someone else because they want to, not out of obligation. “There’s nothing better than to take a look at someone you’ve spent some time with either officially mentoring or just sharing some time with, and watch them succeed,” he said.