November 2007 Issue

Beyond the Mentoring Hype

There’s real value in mentoring programs, a Mentor of the Millennium tells an APEGGA national conference. But they must be flexible and properly designed to see positive results.



Like the great role model and mentor that she is, Helen Madill went to work with a graduate student and a PhD candidate, and reviewed the research. Then she spoke in Calgary to about 100 attendees of APEGGA’s second annual National Mentoring Conference, last month, explaining how mentoring — done properly — rises above the hype.

The University of Alberta professor and award-winning mentor cited research going back two decades to prove that good mentoring builds careers and boosts the bottom line. Although mentoring should not be dismissed as a mere “flavour of the month,” it isn’t the panacea for all human resources challenges either, Dr. Madill cautioned.

The National Mentoring Conference was first held in Edmonton, last year. This time — under the theme Recharging Your Mentoring Batteries — the conference moved to Calgary, Oct. 25 and 26.

The conference stems from the APEGGA Mentoring Program, a Professional Development Department service for members. Begun in 2004 in a formalized sense, the APEGGA program uses in-house tools to match protégés with mentors. It also features support seminars and events for participants, and it has played a key role in the Association’s efforts to help ease the transition of internationally educated graduates.

Making it Work
APEGGA isn’t the first organization to create a mentoring program, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last. Dr. Madill pointed out: “Mentoring programs have been used across a wide variety of sectors, but contexts differ and the evidence is not always there to support claims.”

Mentors, protégés and employers need to tailor and execute their programs effectively for mentoring to succeed, said Dr. Madill. And they need to temper expectations with what mentoring actually can achieve.

Still, the research reveals a long list of what good mentoring has done for companies and other organizations. Half of the 500 biggest businesses in the U.S., in fact, now offer mentoring, which is up 10 per cent from five years ago. Safeway, Best Buy, General Electric and Deloitte & Touche USA all report successes from their mentoring programs.

Employers have used mentoring to help increase diversity in the workforce, enhance the integration of newcomers and new graduates, increase retention and increase profit margins, the conference heard. To use mentoring properly, however, there are some “valuable elements” that need to be incorporated, Dr. Madill said.

Participation should be voluntary. Top management not only needs to be involved in mentoring but must also support it. And all levels of stakeholders need to be involved. Some companies actually bring clients and customers into their mentoring.

Everyone involved in mentoring needs to be educated about it. Clear goals and expectations should be set. Policies need to be flexible, and the length of mentoring relationships should be limited to two to five years, Dr. Madill said. Programs should be regularly monitored and evaluated.

Good mentoring can be used to tackle real business problems and bridge the gender gap, she said. And mentors and their organizations need to “walk the talk,” by being good role
models for protégés.

An All-Star Cast
Dr. Madill was one on a list of awarding-winning mentors to make presentations at this year’s conference. The list includes a former APEGGA councillor, Julie Aitken, P.Geoph.

Said Ms. Aitken: “Mentoring is one of the most important things you’ll ever do. We have the power to change the future of someone by sharing our wisdom, our experience and, most of all, our time.”

A graduate student at the University of Calgary and a former EnCana exploration geophysicist, Ms. Aitken was the Alberta Women’s Science Network Mentor of the Month in August 1999. She just finished a two-year term as Alberta’s director on the Canadian Council of Professional Geoscientists.

Another mentor with strong APEGGA connections, Mary Ann Byrd, P.Eng., said mentoring evolves over time. Mentoring is a “two-way street,” she said, with mentors learning from their protégés as well as passing wisdom along.

Educated in the U.S., Ms. Byrd has been a Canadian citizen since 1994 and a permanent resident for more than two decades. Now with the Department of National Defence, Suffield, she’s been involved in APEGGA through Outreach and the Medicine Hat Branch.

One of Ms. Byrd’s passions has always been promoting science and technology with young people — which she believes is particularly important as a female role model in engineering.

When she received a Mentor of the Millennium Award from the Alberta Women’s Science Network in 2002, “I was surprised and shocked,” Ms. Byrd said, because mentoring is simply “an integral part of my lifestyle.”

A Corporate Must-Have
George Jergeas, P.Eng., often puts on professional development events in project management for APEGGA. He is an associate professor of project management at the University of Calgary.

Said Dr. Jergeas: “I feel mentoring today is a must to attract people, retain people and improve a company’s competitiveness.”

One of his colleagues at the U of C and a fellow expert in project management, Francis Hartman, P.Eng.,  said “reverse mentoring” is important now because of the speed of technological advances. In reverse mentoring, new and often younger staff members have something to teach their more experienced colleagues.

Dr. Hartman, a professor and the president of two companies, said engineers are arriving on the scene who’ve never used a slide rule, but are certainly savvy when it comes to the Internet and their personal electronic devices.

From Sydney to Edmonton
Younger minds definitely influenced Dr. Madill’s presentation, which cited about 40 references and acknowledged the input of PhD candidate Rachel Campbell and graduate student Mandy York. In fact, Ms. Campbell introduced Dr. Madill as an important mentor in her life.

Dr. Madill received the AWSN Minerva Mentoring Award and Mentor of the Millennium Award, this year. She joined the academic staff at the U of A in 1970 after arriving in Edmonton four years earlier from Sydney, Australia. Today she is a professor and the graduate programs coordinator for the Centre for Health Promotion Studies, in the university’s new School of Public Health.

As a senior research assistant in 2002, Ms. Campbell embarked on an 18-month project with Dr. Madill. “Every question I had, no matter how large or how small, Helen would respond promptly, helpfully and supportively. Other times, she worked with me towards solutions,” said Ms. Campbell.

“And I must stress that we always worked together. She treated me as a colleague.”

APEGGA will be hearing more from Ms. Campbell — she’s doing her PhD on the evolution of engineering careers. Watch for an upcoming story on how to get involved in her work.