Making Time for Project Team Mentoring

When you’re executing a large automation project, you always want experienced people who can efficiently resolve all the unexpected issues that can add cost and time to a schedule. But what about the need to develop this expertise? Developing it means sacrificing some experience on the project team and increasing overall risk.

Terry Seanard, a senior systems engineer with Emerson local business partner New England Controls, wrote a great Applied Automation magazine article, Technical Lead as Mentor. He succinctly defines this challenge for project technical leads:

Should he or she organize the project the usual way, with the same roles for each person in the same type of group as the last project, or shake things up a little and consider it an opportunity to improve the skills of the people involved by mentoring them and making them stretch their abilities?

For process manufacturers in the mature manufacturing areas of the world, the dilemma is magnified given the number of experienced people retiring over the next decade. Terry notes the hurdles even if an organization is willing to sacrifice some experience in order to develop it. The management team must support the additional time required, the tech lead must see the benefit, the team members must want to be developed, and the tech lead must have the mentoring skills to develop the team members.

Above all, a longer-term perspective is required. The benefits occur in future projects, not the current one. Terry notes some ways engineers can gain leadership skills required for the tech lead role:

It is a fortunate engineer who, while gaining the five or six years of engineering experience that culminate in being a tech lead, has his or her own mentor who will suggest delegating some work to three or four co-ops or interns, being in charge of them, and taking responsibility that they get the job done. Similarly, an engineer’s development will be aided by participating in meetings with clients, and learning the dynamics of project execution and management.

For the additional organizational and tech lead commitment to mentoring, Terry highlights the upside:

It adds another point of contact for involvement with the actual work being done by the team, and thus can enhance reporting up the line and help a project go more smoothly. It gives the tech lead a stronger understanding of the team and of team members’ individual competencies heading into the next project. At the end of the project, when a manager says, “give me a rundown on what everybody did and where we can use them in the future,” the tech lead will have a real answer, as opposed to just saying, “work X from engineer Y came out without any errors, so he or she is good at that task.”

Mentoring keeps team members more engaged and opens a line of two-way communication for real feedback. A team member who is being mentored is less likely to be afraid to give a truthful opinion to his or her tech lead.

He shares his advice to those considering the mentoring path:

  • Have your team members provide a peer review of your work and the team’s work;
  • Expose your team members to their clients;
  • Explain the big picture, but let the team members come up with the details (supervised autonomy);
  • Assign teaching tasks (delegate leadership);
  • Promote critical thinking, not just output;
  • Know your team members’ preferred learning styles;
  • Involve your team members in the big decisions that affect them;
  • Have your team members supply the justifications for changes (budget, schedule, hours);
  • Explain business decisions;
  • Make your team members accountable but protected;
  • Know their individual career goals; Support those goals with appropriate assignments;
  • Be involved with your team’s work;
  • Guide before driving.

The automation-related LinkedIn groups are filled with automation engineer job opportunities requiring high experience levels. It seems that more mentoring to develop newer engineers is becoming increasingly important. Terry’s article is a great place to begin on ways to get started.

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