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Make the most of your mentor

Do you need a mentor? The chances are that you already have several, even if you aren't aware of it. Gerry Waller, principal of consulting engineers The Civil Engineering Partnership in East Sussex, is convinced that he has learned nearly everything he kn

'Everyone I have met, I have learned something from, ' says Gerry Waller. 'And I still am - whether they are clients, planners or lawyers.' Waller believes the fact he has moved into different areas of the sector helped, by bringing him into contact with engineers with various kinds of expertise.

'I started 16 years ago, working for a local authority, then I joined a large consultancy. After that, I worked in Cairo, in charge of 200 expatriate engineers, and then I ran a company installing giant water chutes - and I was learning all the time.'

Now, Waller acts as a mentor to his five full-time technical employees, three of whom have training contracts with the ICE. His approach is informal - and he sees the great advantage of mentoring as a way of developing staff.

'It does help that we are working in an open plan office, so it's easy to communicate. I go for the obligatory walk round in the morning and the afternoon, and see what's going on.'

Many large firms across all sectors of industry are now trying to formalise this sort of learning, and build mentoring into their development programmes. And although some firms do have mentoring policies in place, there is nothing to stop individuals taking the initiative in any company, and either suggesting that scheme is set up, or seeking out a mentor of their own.

According to Dr Laurence Lyons, senior vice president of the Executive Coaching Network, the key advantage of mentoring is that it gives you direct access to the knowledge of a senior colleague who has done your job, knows the skills you need and can give you a route-map of what needs to be done - complete with short cuts.

'Usually, people will see their mentor, then go back and do their job, ' he points out. 'So they get continual feedback about how it's working in real situations. It's very different from doing an MBA, where you are acquiring knowledge which you can use later.'

This makes it a very direct way of learning for anyone new to a company - or who has just been promoted. 'It's useful for engineers who have gone into a management role, because it's a form of accelerated learning, ' says Lyons.

Pam Jones, programme director at Ashridge Management College, agrees. 'Mentoring is valuable in the civil engineering sector because individuals are skilled technically, but often have little management training, ' she says. 'As part of a management programme, mentoring can help a lot in terms of learning how to deal with people.'

But Jones stresses that if you want to get the most out of your mentor, you should be clear about your weak points and what you want to learn.

Executive Coaching Network: www.metacorp.demon.co.uk

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