Career SkillsCareers

The Mentor and the Mentee: A Little Philosophy, Lots of Practical Advice

By John D. McDonald, P.E.

Over the course of a half-century of globe-trotting in the power business I have come to view mentoring as a potentially life- and career-enhancing practice for those who embrace it. The order in which I list the potential benefits of mentoring is intentional: your career is part of your life, not the other way around. Enhance the life, enhance the career. Ipso facto.

Finding the right mentor can provide a student, a young professional, even a mid-career veteran with invaluable strategic guidance and tactical advice that enriches lives and advances careers. These benefits flow both ways. Serving as a mentor, in turn, can bring unexpected rewards to the mentor’s personal and professional life.

Let’s articulate the key takeaway here at the outset: a student learns the science of engineering in school, but the application of that science — the art of engineering — is crucial and that primarily occurs through working with experienced, knowledgeable professionals in the field. That, in a nutshell, is the value of mentoring to students and young professionals.

In this article, I’ll share some of my own experiences and lessons learned in the often-informal realm of mentoring, while providing a few best practices for students and young professionals that may be of practical benefit to them.

(If readers are interested in more detail than this article provides, see the IEEE-HKN Series Career Conversations Episode 2, “Effective Mentorship,” and/or a videotaped seminar I gave at Purdue University, “Key Insights into Career Management & Building and Leading a Volunteer Organization.”)

Serendipity Strikes

My own experience may run counter to my thesis here, but it illustrates the role of pure luck, one of life’s unexpected gifts. Although the proper outlook and adherence to best practices by would-be mentees will bear fruit, I have to acknowledge that if serendipity enters the picture, seize the day!

In my own case, I had the good fortune to have an early mentor who literally plucked me from obscurity as a freshman at Purdue University in 1969, and set me on a lifelong professional trajectory. I was enrolled in the university’s Electrical Engineering honors program. Out of the blue, Ahmed H. El-Abiad, an Egyptian professor at Purdue, called me to his office. He told me (he did not ask), “I will be your major professor. You will specialize in power. You’ll start graduate school in three years and graduate with a master’s in five years with a BSEE, MSEE and a thesis.” Age 18, I had no idea at the time that this gentleman had co-written (with G.W. Stagg) Computer Methods in Power System Analysis in 1968, a book that revolutionized our industry. To this day, I don’t know what he saw in me, but my whole career was mapped out in that meeting. (He soon told me to join IEEE, which I did in 1971, and the same year I was inducted into IEEE’s Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), the Institute’s honor society.)

Imagine my good fortune that a brilliant would-be mentor reached out in this assertive manner! I acknowledge that my case is unusual, probably rare. In ensuing years, I have had many opportunities to mentor students and young professionals, so let’s review the outlook and steps that can be of practical benefit to mentor-seekers.

Take the Initiative

Initiating a mentoring relationship is the primary responsibility of the individual who can benefit. The mentee must drive the process, yet approach the search from an organic standpoint. Finding an influential mentor should be a natural result of the mentee’s networking, participation in pan-industry organizations, and drive to better themselves through career advancement. Would-be mentors need to be open to genuinely interested individuals. Would-be mentees should not be afraid to ask for guidance from someone they respect and “click” with.

Often in life, the best things happen when you’re not specifically looking for them. Get involved in activities outside of your school or company. Participate in extracurricular activities, volunteer to take leadership positions, expand your network. You’ll run into experienced people — maybe in your local IEEE chapter — and you’ll find someone you have an easy chemistry with, someone with the knowledge and experience you need. It should happen naturally. In my experience, many relationships begin in person or via a social media platform such as LinkedIn. Research the backgrounds and bailiwicks of people you meet. Trust your instincts. You’ll meet people who can help you.


Networking is a two-way street. Always be ready to offer value to others in a selfless way. When you need help, ask for it. Those you have helped will return the favor. Just being ready to assist others will make it easier to ask for assistance when you need it. Pay attention to your personal relationships, stay in touch with people you meet. LinkedIn is a simple, easy way to maintain contacts. This will be personally satisfying and professionally advantageous. Every job I’ve had in my career stemmed from the contacts in my network.

Social media, if used properly, is a branding and communication tool. LinkedIn offers the opportunity to continually update your accomplishments and reflect endorsements from colleagues, while making it easy for others to find you. Twitter offers a real-time chance to tout your upcoming talks and articles and to comment on industry news as a thought leader. (As long as you know what you’re talking about!)

Keep the majority of your social media strictly professional. Facebook is a good place to post family-related matters outside your professional life. But even then, maintain decorum — posting photos of your crazy night at a fraternity party will never benefit you and could deter a diligent HR person from asking you in for an interview.

Think of social media as a global stage for putting your best foot forward.

Your First Job

Life is full of contradictions, which will become apparent in my advice for a graduate’s first job. Be determined to provide value, to do more than expected for your company. If the work situation is less than ideal, don’t let it affect your attitude. No one is indispensable. Yet you must not be naïve. You may think your company has a plan for you, that it is looking out for you. That is possible. But typically, you drive your own success. First jobs rarely offer a long-term opportunity, if you carefully cultivate your value.

Strive to become a “depth” person rather than a “surface person.” Take advantage of all training opportunities. Your company, its clients, and the outside world will quickly discern whether you understand the technology, the business case, and the industry’s multifaceted culture.

Speaking of the business case, early in your career may be the best time to seek a Masters of Business Administration (MBA). I see many engineers held back in their quest for advancement and influence because they don’t know how to build a business case for a technology solution. Fairly early in my career, I earned an MBA at the University of California-Berkeley and that has paid dividends in my professional life.

This is also a time to join outside organizations such as the IEEE, CIGRE, and volunteer for industry efforts and activities outside your company.

In finding your way forward, becoming a “depth person,” pursuing further education, and volunteering for industry responsibilities outside your company, a mentor can be an invaluable sounding board and provide a broader perspective that will open your eyes to opportunities.

Internal vs. External Focus

I advocate that a young professional in their first job should develop both an internal focus and an external focus.

Internally, apart from your day-to-day responsibilities and assignments, learn what makes your company tick. Where does it fit in the industry ecosystem? What is its unique value proposition? What is its culture? Who are your competitors? Where do you fit in this picture?

Your manager should not be your mentor — managers focus more on transactional matters than on the strategic outlook you seek. Managers are primarily aligned with their company’s trajectory, as they should be. However, it would be difficult for a person with a laser focus on business success at one company to provide the broader perspectives you seek. You will find your mentor in your ever-expanding network of colleagues outside your shop.

You must avoid what I call the “microwave mentality” that expects everything to happen instantly. In my generation, jobs were expected to be maintained for a minimum of three to four years. Today, I advocate a minimum of two years. This gives you time to understand your company, your work, your colleagues, and your networking will be more meaningful and longer-lasting. A minimum, two-year tenure promotes being a “depth person” and not a “surface person” who is constantly jumping from one lily pad to the next.

To be valuable to your company and true to your own potential, you must balance your internal, corporate responsibilities with a foot solidly planted in the outside world. Keep apprised of industry trends, events, and news. Keep an eye on the standards development process so that your own work is up-to-date and relevant. Get involved in IEEE or CIGRE or other organizations’ committees, which form to solve pan-industry challenges. Develop your own viewpoint and be able to articulate it, which is the core of thought leadership. Offer to speak, write articles or champion a peer. Seeking a mentor does not preclude offering others your own valuable experiences and insights.

The Outside World

Whenever possible, seek assignments outside your home country. In becoming a “depth person,” you will need to understand regional differences in technology, standards, policy, and business cases. International work and travel will broaden your outlook and make you sensitive to nuances in cultural differences. A mentor is invaluable in this respect. Your mentor may emerge on an international stage. Facetime, Zoom and other platforms make the Earth flat! You may find a mentor who lives on another continent.

Managing the Mentor Relationship

At this point, it should be obvious that understanding the value of a mentor and finding the right one is not a goal in itself. Rather, it is likely to be the outcome of other best practices for life enrichment and career advancement that will make the mentor connection happen in an organic way. That typically results in the best fit. You will hit it off with someone whose ideas inspire you, whose trajectory captures your own aspirations, whose personality easily meshes with your own.

Mark my words: once you find this person, you have a new set of responsibilities. This relationship is not about technical training. It is about developing a broader outlook, a strategic approach to life and work, about developing opportunities, both for yourself and for others.

You should be in regular contact with your mentor via an agreed schedule. Put thought and effort into each meeting. Don’t wing it. A mentor appreciates a mentee who has emailed ahead the topics they wish to discuss. This shows initiative and — this is critical — it shows respect for your mentor’s time and for their commitment to the mentoring process. I often ask my mentees to view an online talk I gave in a joint program presented by the IEEE Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation Society (DEIS) Young Professionals and CIGRE United States National Committee (USNC), “Key Insights to Career Management.” This program is likely to provide a mentee with pertinent questions for their mentor meetings.

The whole process, as noted, must be driven by the mentee. If you’re looking to glad hand a seasoned professional for a reference on your CV, you have utterly failed to understand the mentoring opportunity.

The Work/Life Balance

So, you have focused on your job responsibilities while planting your feet in the larger, outside world. What’s left? Making time for your family and friends outside of work.

Working hard is expected, and every project will land you in the office on the occasional weekend, sometimes a few in a row, when it’s “all hands-on deck.” But as a mentor, I say: make time for your personal life. The efficient use of time, and knowing how to use the on/off button is important. Be available to your spouse, your children. To the extent possible, attend family events. If you are traveling and cannot be there in person, Facetime is your friend.

Being a Mentor

Let’s finish with the other side of the coin: being a mentor. It would seem inevitable that over the course of being mentored and later in your career, the mentee will find themselves approached to mentor others. It’s never too early to start, and it’s easy to imagine a mid-career professional actually engaged in both the mentor and the mentee role.

I’ve been asked, “What skills should a good mentor have?”

Take a genuine interest in anyone who shows you a genuine interest in your strategic guidance on broadening their outlook and shaping their own trajectory. Ask questions and listen. Don’t talk about yourself, unless it supports a larger point.

Schedule regular sessions with your mentee, but be flexible. In my case, I may have monthly meetings scheduled with a mentee, but suddenly they have a pressing issue at hand and need to talk. If your mentee is on another continent, hone your time zone math.

Your charges need to know how to apply the art of the science of engineering, yet their needs for guidance on career strategy may come with difficult tactical decisions they want to discuss as well. Lead them to their own conclusions by asking them to weigh the variables, prioritize the outcomes. Counsel the mentee on making rational, thoughtful, deliberate decisions after weighing pros and cons. A lot of trust is required on both sides.

Various companies I have worked for set up their own, in-house mentoring programs. Organizations such as the IEEE PES and IEEE-HKN do as well. I have been involved in both, but I also find that my most satisfying mentoring opportunities have evolved informally, based on the looser approach to career advancement best practices outlined in this article.

I should add that, initially, I expected mentoring relationships to last a couple years at most. And I found, to my surprise and continuing delight, that some have spanned nearly a decade and multiple continents.

The concept of “reverse mentoring,” where both parties are expected to share their knowledge, is an intriguing one. In my experience, a mentee familiarized me with emerging blogging platforms as I took up the practice of regular, public thought leadership. No matter how smart you think you are, it’s a time-saver to have someone simply share the how-to aspects of the latest technology that otherwise might escape you.

On a practical note, starting a reverse mentoring program within a company or organization requires a thoughtful approach and a careful presentation on expectations. The recent grad might be intimidated at the prospect of teaching a seasoned professional something the latter doesn’t know. Likewise, that seasoned pro might balk at learning from a freshly minted graduate. Set expectations accordingly.

The Rewards

The potential benefits of mentoring to the mentee should be obvious. Life enhancement. Career advancement. (Remember that sequence!) In my own case, it gave me a technology focus that provided a trajectory for my entire career. But the rewards for the mentor are many. It’s an act of giving back, of altruism. It is deeply satisfying to see young people, with thoughtful strategic guidance, make strides in their lives and professional work as a result. Young people are enthusiastic, energetic, idealistic, hard-working, and at the threshold of a lifetime of adventure and achievement. Having a hand in facilitating their success as an IEEE Life Fellow has provided me with a deep satisfaction that makes the time and effort worthwhile.


John D. McDonald, P.E.

John D. McDonald, P.E., is an IEEE Life Fellow, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an honorary member of CIGRE. He is also the founder and CEO of JDM Associate, LLC.

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