I hope you read Mark Bray’s post on Character Angels last month. If you haven’t, you should, it is a great piece on the benefits of mentoring as a process.

In this blog I am hoping to share a bit of my ‘grey hair’ as I do with my own mentees and to outline how mentoring can help us develop on a faster trajectory.

As I approach nearly 40 years in the Melbourne industry, I have the benefit of a huge ‘quantity’ of experience, not all of it ‘quality’ but nearly all an opportunity to learn, grow and mature (even now). And that is probably my key message. Always continue to do the above and adopt and respond to where the world and our industry is taking us. If you stay still you will be left behind.

I was fortunate to be academically bright and with a reasonable intuitive aptitude for my chosen path of structural engineering. That is pretty lucky given I had very little understanding of what I enrolled for on completion of high school. The disadvantage of seeing myself as pretty clever in my early career was that I, with hindsight, missed out on so many opportunities to learn because I probably thought I knew better. This made me a poor observer and also a poor ‘loser’. I didn’t take criticism very well and attempted to defend my mistakes rather than fix them, learn from them and move on.

I look back now and wonder how much better I could have become if I had the benefit of a strong mentor to help me become a less competitive and better team player in my early years. This is a tricky balance as ego and self-confidence are part of what makes us successful, but it needs to be harnessed and balanced by self-awareness. This took me quite a few years to understand but once the penny dropped it was quite liberating. I became more open to learning from others and consequentially a better team player and mentor to those working with me. It also reduces stress levels enormously, making mistakes became something to learn from and sometimes laugh at. We all make them, particularly in our industry where a successful design and construction project is one that best manages the consequences of numerous errors and oversights as it would be foolish to believe they could be eliminated.

Self-awareness is also about understanding what makes you tick, what motivates you and what gets up your nose, sometimes without justification. Professionally it is also about understanding where your real aptitudes lie and whilst always working on our weaknesses to mainly play to our strengths. Coming to understand these aspects of myself made me much more effective and valuable. I eventually realised that I was capable of having great ideas and developing fantastic concepts but was hopeless at delivering them because I have the attention span of a gnat and cannot focus on one task for long before being distracted.

I have become great at finding people whose skill sets compliment mine however, and have learnt to put together balanced teams with all of the round pegs in round holes etc. to deliver all aspects of a project well. This is always easier if the pegs know they are round and don’t aspire to be square.

So my message to you is to really understand yourself, we typically know our strengths but need to also admit to our weaknesses and deal with them. Know others too and learn to appreciate and use their strengths. This flows on to lots of other good behaviours such as accepting blame rather than trying to divert it to others and sharing the glory of a task well done (I am still learning this one!).

I might conclude with a couple of other hard won lessons:

Try never to give an ultimatum or set up a scenario where there are only two outcomes (win or lose). A 50/50 bet professionally is not a good one and painting yourself into a corner is not a good place to be.

If you know what your objective is, plan the route to get there that maximises your probability of success. This sometimes requires patience and a bit of ‘pride swallowing’ rather than ‘nose cutting to spite our face’. This is particularly important when dealing with negotiations on your own career with your employer. A good negotiation gives everyone room to move and a reason to do so.

Finally, Melbourne is a reasonably large city with a surprisingly small property and construction industry. Be respectful in your dealings as you never know where you will meet someone again and what role they will be in. I have many former staff who are now clients. That is a good sign but I sometimes wonder if there are others who are not.

I am sure everyone in the program, Mentor & Mentee alike, has war stories to share and look forward to hearing some of them as I continue to adapt and learn.