I was fortunate to begin my career on the most expensive highway project in the United States, The Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also referred to by the Boston locals as the Big Dig). For those that don’t know, this was a mega-project in Boston that rerouted the major Interstate from above ground to below ground. The final costs to complete exceeded $16 Billion. Indeed, with a project of this size there was bound to be at least some problems. Most of these issues led to escalating costs, schedule issues, and questionable execution. However, after all was said and done, it has led to much more enjoyable harbor front views, public parks and allowed the interstate to run underground throughout the city. Back then, I had very little appreciation for what I was learning and what I was a part of.
When I started working, I had an eyes wide open approach to everything at all times. However, even though this project was the most expensive in the US, I knew nothing different in the Engineering and Project Management world. I thought this was normal and would be like the rest of the projects that I would be on. Twenty years later, I look back and realize that I probably won’t be on such a project again and if one comes around, I probably will treat it a bit different with regards to my appreciation for it. However, I also remember that I wanted to learn. I wanted to get the most out of it. So, I steered towards the people that had been on the project a long time and felt I could learn the most from them. By definition mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge and support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development. Little did I know back then that this would be my first opportunity to have many mentors. I didn’t know what a mentor was back then. I guess I thought that a mentor would be someone who would come to me in a graduation cap and gown, sit with me, teach me the ropes and not let me fail.
Within my first month, I started asking more questions. I remember sitting in my first large program level meeting and being in awe of the knowledge the team members had. While I was nervous, I learned quickly that these people… these mentors... were all around me and wanted to help me be all I could be. That being said, I was very fortunate to have an amazing boss at the time. His name was Al and while I had no idea at the time what he was to me, looking back he was the first mentor to whom I always found myself turning when I had questions or concerns and wanted to seek his approval on what I was doing.
My first recollection of finding out that a 20-something didn’t know-it-all was on a simple task of providing a construction overview schedule for Al for an executive meeting he was going to be attending. I was so proud of myself. I was ecstatic that I had completed this task with little or no help and thought what I had done was perfect and required no editing. Little did I know, that was one of Al’s first tests for me. I handed over my printout the morning of the meeting thinking I was all set. Al thanked me and said he would review it. I thought to myself, “Review it?!… It’s perfect. It shouldn’t need any review. It’s ‘good-to-go’”. About an hour later he called me over to his desk. He had markings all over it. The one comment that has stuck with me out of all of the edits was that the coloring that I had chosen was all wrong. He then explained to me that the executives would think it was too busy and would not be forceful enough for the message that it was portraying. Now, he didn’t make me feel bad or feel like I failed, but he made suggestions on the basis that I could improve my messaging. For years after I left that first job, I turned to Al for direction and even approval on my career decisions. To this day, whenever I provide a dashboard or report I think back to this comment and still try to improve upon my deliverable.
Mentoring can come in all shapes and sizes. It can occur when you least expect it or when you have signed up for a mentoring program. Our local PMI Chapter has a great mentoring program of which many people take advantage. When they are done they are so glad they went through it. Many of the mentors and mentees are first timers. They also don’t have to be mentors who are perfectly aligned with the mentee’s main line of duties. I am currently mentoring a handful of supervisors. I find that while they can run circles around me on many of their day to day responsibilities, I am able to provide them with some guidance, more specifically in the Project Management profession since they have no formal training or formal PM education. They find out about things that may help right away or even a year from now, much like Al did for me.
In conclusion, I urge any and all of you to get involved with mentoring, either with your own company, with your PM organization, or even with old colleagues. Mentoring entails communication which we all know is usually the area of breakdown in most conflicts.