September 2007, Vol. 19, No.9

Young Professionals

Unleashing Your Inner Hendrix

Mentors can help young professionals’ talents shine

Mentors can help young professionals’ talents shine

On June 2, 1967, The Beatles released in North America their magnum opus, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It is rumored that a promising young musician was so taken by the LP’s title track that he barely slept for 24 hours. You see, the talented young star was insistent upon learning to play the song perfectly. Two days later, topping the bill at London’s Saville Theatre and with two Beatles (namely Paul and George) in attendance, Jimi Hendrix opened the show with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It was noted the crowd’s response was so inspiring that Jimi would open the rest of his performances with the same number throughout the remainder of the year.

A talented young baseball player who was rumored to run like the wind and have thunder in his bat was summoned to the big leagues in 1951 after only 2 years in the minor leagues. Nothing more than a boy, the 19-year-old performed poorly in his initial stint with the “big club,” and was sent back to the minors. His poor performance disappointed supporters and fueled the arguments of those who were critical because the ball player was to replace a legend. So distraught by the bout of failure, the boy called his father in a tearful rage. The boy’s father left his farm immediately and traveled halfway across the United States. When the boy saw his father, he was relieved he could return home at last. To his surprise, his father gave him a stern lecture, letting him know that the only unacceptable action was quitting. Fortunately, Mickey Mantle heeded his father’s word and remained with the New York Yankees for 18 seasons before entering the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame (of course, Mickey Mantle replaced Joe DiMaggio as the Yankees center fielder).

In both of these examples, the success of the young stars was built on their natural talent, the opportunities made available to them, and their own initiative and dedication to improvement. As the war for talent rages in the water quality field, there certainly is cause for concern about attracting, developing, and retaining talent. Opportunities are numerous, but young professionals (YPs) are left with challenging decisions about their future development and career direction.

While the following can apply to all career paths, allow us to use technology as an example of the development process. Our perspective is that proper use of technology for career development will attract, develop, and retain YPs through a 5-step program that includes initiation, integration, training, performance, and maintenance. At each of these steps, YP advancement is a two-way street, with senior staff providing opportunities and YPs taking the initiative to build on their talents and advance their own careers.

By definition, initiation requires senior staff to be responsible for initiating, or engaging, YPs to identify a predisposition, or interests, in specific areas of service provided by the organization. During integration, senior staff must seek out projects and provide opportunities for junior staff to meet and learn from the company’s experts in the appropriate fields of interest. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the YPs to conscientiously perform current assignments in a timely fashion and maintain a positive attitude until projects reflecting the areas of interest arise.

Adequate training results from senior staff providing appropriate resources and adjusting expectations to allow the YPs to train. However, at this point, additional effort is required by the YP to clearly identify training that is within the confines of the company’s developmental regime, on-the-job training that may be appropriately billed to project work, and “homework.” Until a thorough understanding of the technology is obtained, YPs must work with a partial understanding of the material. Realistically, there is a bulk of both theoretical and practical knowledge required to function as a technological leader. Therefore, YPs must extend an extraordinary effort to obtain, interpret, and apply the knowledge to the benefit of the company and thereby to the benefit of their career growth. Senior consultants must take time to explain the relevance of the underlying material and respond in a manner that is not condescending when inevitable errors occur. An accomplished mentor will provide thorough feedback, seek out technology leaders who possess the solution if the mentor does not, and provide an appropriate barrier between the YP and clients in order to avoid YP embarrassment. This is effectively accomplished by quality control of the YP’s communications and deliverables.

Next, the YP must meet performance expectations. Given the appropriate training, the junior technologist then must deliver quality work in a timely manner. The company stands to benefit from its investment made during training. Finally, it is the responsibility of the YP to maintain a high level of performance through continuing education. This progression will have earned the YP the added responsibility of clearly communicating experiences and lessons learned to others (that is, become a mentor rather than a student).

While the course developed in this column is clear, reality is not as black and white. In fact, the transition from YP to experienced practitioner is usually coated with 100 shades of gray. However, our culture simplifies the process — if you love and are passionate about your chosen profession, there is no work in life. Jimi worked diligently in order to learn to play the song, not just to play the song in concert. In fact, the performance was his reward. YPs are offered similar rewards when we present our research or project work to the client, at conferences, or in technical journals, and when we move up the career path and are presented with new challenging opportunities. Mickey was given good guidance, but it was his own persistence that resulted in a hall-of-fame career. So, our message to fellow YPs is simple: Work hard, never give up, and do the right thing. Thereafter, rest assured that your career will grow.

Joshua Boltz is a wastewater process technologist at CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.), ad hoc chair for student chapter formation of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Student and Young Professionals Committee (SYPC), and chair of the Florida Water Environment Association SYPC. Jacqueline Kepke is a project manager and technologist at CH2M Hill Australia Pty. Ltd. (Sydney, New South Wales).

Joshua Boltz is a wastewater process technologist at CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.), ad hoc chair for student chapter formation of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Student and Young Professionals Committee (SYPC), and chair of the Florida Water Environment Association SYPC. Jacqueline Kepke is a project manager and technologist at CH2M Hill Australia Pty. Ltd. (Sydney, New South Wales).