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January 12, 2010

Mentoring at APL: A Genuine Growth Experience

New employees have a lot to learn about their jobs. But it can take many years to build up some on-the-job knowledge: how an organization really works and what its culture is like. Reducing that learning curve is where APL’s departmental mentoring programs come in. Mentoring at APL is all about building skills, partnerships, and networks—tools that help staff enhance, accelerate, and focus their professional growth. Departments (kind of “hometowns” for staff) see the mentoring programs as a means for strengthening their workforce. For staff members, these programs are a great way to increase their potential, get acclimated to APL’s professional culture, and receive inside help in navigating their career.

“It’s all about forming networks and ties,” says one department head. “We want to create as many opportunities as possible for networking and construct so many ties that, no matter where your career takes you, you always have a support system.”

Within each department, interested mentees working toward professional goals or seeking assistance with particular skill sets are matched with staff mentors who have experience and demonstrated capabilities in those areas. The mentee’s goals may focus on technical guidance, professional development, or soft skills (for example, information about the inner workings of APL and the mentee’s department; communication skills such as technical writing, oral presentations, and interpersonal communication; time management; and leadership). Commenting on his mentor, one mentee said, “I was looking for someone with a ‘big picture’ view—this person was perfect for that!”

The mentors themselves are generally people outside of a staff member’s normal supervisory chain who can help the mentee set and achieve goals that will benefit his or her APL career. The opportunity to mentor allows experienced staff to shape the growth of new talent by sharing their expertise, supplying career advice, sharing resources and personal experiences, offering positive feedback, and providing professional vision and direction. Said one mentor: “I’m very satisfied with the relationship. It’s been very rewarding so far. I feel as though he’s learning from me, and I’m learning from him.” Another mentor commented: “I liked the conversations that my mentee and I had. I enjoyed and took great satisfaction in seeing [her] approach topics differently and in seeing results in her from our discussions.”

Generally, all new technical hires are eligible for the mentoring programs. Mentoring pairs begin their relationships with training that covers objectives, expectations, and responsibilities; development of specific skills (listening, coaching, and conflict resolution); and how to effectively define goals. At the start of the mentoring period, the matched mentor and mentee develop and sign a flexible mentoring agreement that covers their expectations of the relationship. That blueprint guides the mentoring process.

Mentoring pairs typically meet once a week over about 6 months. APL has found that both mentors and mentees benefit from and find satisfaction in these relationships. Said one mentee: “It was really a benefit to talk with someone who has taken the same path I want to—and succeeded.”