"Mentoring is about leadership. If you are a leader, or want to be, then mentoring is something that comes with the job description"
Recently, I became a mentor. I say recently because it’s the first time I’ve been officially designated as a mentor.
In my view, every supervisor and every manager has an intrinsic duty to mentor their subordinates. I’ve done this for many years and have been very proud to see others go on to success as they discovered new talents or abilities that help propel their career forward.
For me, mentoring is about leadership. If you are a leader, or want to be, then mentoring is something that comes with the job description. Some people view this is a one-way relationship. Coaching peers and subordinates is a two-way street, where both parties benefit.
So if I’ve been a mentor for decades, how is it that I just recently became one?
Earlier this year, I was at an event (Yes, it was pre-COVID 19), and some friends asked me why I was not a mentor in their program. I have to admit that question was a bit uncomfortable and caused me to gaze intently at my shoes for a moment.
My answer was fairly uninspiring. “I can’t be,” I replied. “I am a man.” You see, the event I was attending was the WOHSS Women in Safety Conference, and my friends are members. My slightly awkward reply was met with some amusement on the part of my friends. One of them said safety is not just about women, and neither is WOHSS and that I should sign up and be a mentor.
Having that barrier removed left me with no excuse, and frankly, I had thought about becoming a mentor earlier but instead of doing the research, simply assumed I was ineligible.
I did sign up, and filled in the forms to become a mentor. Many people have reasons for becoming a mentor, and the reasons are as varied as they are for the people who seek a mentor.
Safety is a lonely job
Some may ask why we need a mentoring program in the health and safety profession. In many cases, the safety person is the only safety person in the entire company and is charged with managing a safety program or system for their employer.
It can be hard trying to make decisions when you’re not quite sure what you should be doing or how you should be doing it. Without any peers within the organization to turn to, it sort of leaves you out in the cold. Even the most competent among us has had those occasions where they have been asked for a solution that they struggled with.
It is nice to have someone you can reach out to two do a gut check, or a reality check, to try and understand the decision you’re trying to make or the ramifications of that decision. This is even true for senior managers. One of the reasons we see these safety groups in urban centers is so people can network and bounce things off one another.
The issue is sometimes that your peers are at the very same skill, knowledge, and experience level as you. They may end up unintentionally reinforcing a poor course of action or a bad decision. It is invaluable to be able to reach out to someone who is more experienced and educated to get some advice.
That sounds like a great idea. What if it was even free?
Everyone has gaps in their skill set
Everybody has gaps in their skill set. That’s a fact. It may be that some people are very good at the technical aspects of safety. They might have laws and regulations memorized or have an encyclopedic knowledge of standards. Others may be good at relationship building and interfacing with workers in the field but perhaps not very good at interfacing with senior management. Some may not understand corporate financials or corporate risk methodologies and have difficulty speaking the language of business as it relates to safety or risk.
It is entirely true that no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better. No matter how much you think you know, someone always knows more than you. No matter how intelligent you might be, someone is always going to be more intelligent than you.
A good mentoring or coaching relationship has the mentor, and the mentee complementing each other’s skill sets so that both benefit from the experience.
Many people think they have nothing to offer
This is called imposter syndrome. You are in a position, and you’re terrified that other people are going to find out you don’t know everything. Of course, they are terrified that you’re going to find out the same thing about them.
There is no substitute for experience. Some safety people are very experienced since they change jobs every few years, and so experience different industries and different approaches to health and safety management.
It seems as if, these days, we are incentivized to devalue ourselves and demonstrate extreme humility when that is not at all required. People who have been in safety for more than a decade have accumulated significant experience and have had the opportunity to sharpen their skills and develop their talents.
People looking for a mentor are not looking for someone who’s internationally recognized and famous. They’re looking for a sounding board. They’re looking for someone who can help them focus their career. They are looking for someone who can boost their self-confidence. They might be looking for you.
If you think you have nothing to offer, think again. Think about how things were when you went to that first health and safety class or course. Think about how things were when you first started off in the health and safety job. There are so many conflict theories and methods - and so many snake oil salesmen. Navigating that morass would have been a lot easier if you just had someone to talk to. Why not be that someone for someone else?
What’s in it for me?
A lot of times, people asked themselves – what am I going to get out of this? There’s no shame in that, and it is a natural human response to any opportunity.
The rewards are mostly intangible. Mentoring someone won’t make you any smarter. It will give you a sense of accomplishment when you’re able to help someone. It will give you the satisfaction of making a meaningful contribution to someone else’s career.
It might broaden your own horizons. It might expose you to new ideas and viewpoints. It might even make you feel good about yourself and make you a slightly better person.
Mentoring is something that lets you reach back in time and help yourself. That is really what you’re doing. You’re helping someone who is in the same place you were, facing the same challenges you were, and helping them successfully navigate those challenges and learn from the experience.
I’m not suggesting that you can actually travel in time or change the past, but you can change outcomes for someone by lending them your viewpoint, your experience, and your understanding.
It’s a big commitment
This is the number one excuse that I hear for people who would be good mentors. Everyone is busy. It seems to be the thing to say these days. We are all terribly busy doing all sorts of things.
If you are a mentor, the people you are mentoring are not going to demand a lot of your time. They’ll take what you can offer happily. Yes, there is a commitment. As professionals, we always seem to find the time for things that are important to us.
There is no contract signed in blood that you guarantee that the person your mentoring is going to become a safety rockstar, or that they are going to be enormously successful. Mentoring is not about that. It’s about helping others and becoming a leader. It is a way to give back and to gain something in return.
Good leaders know that it doesn’t take a lot of contact time or a lot of hard work to get great performance out of their teams. Some small encouragement, some small recognition, and some active listening are all that’s required. Helping someone believe in themselves and recognize their intrinsic talents and value is leadership, not magic. There is no arcane magic formula, and each relationship between a mentor and a mentee is unique. There are no huge demands on time for either side.
How do I get involved?
That’s easy. All you need to do is join the Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society and sign up to be a mentor. They would be happy to have you (even if you’re a man).
If safety is ever to be a profession, we all need to get better at it, and we all need to invest in the next generation of safety professionals. They are the future. And maybe you are too.