Mentoring is ‘the way it is’ at Midwest firm

KJWW Engineering Consultants employs a formal mentoring process for all new hires.


Firm: KJWW Engineering Consultants

Location: Rock Island, Ill.

Employees: More than 400

Company description: KJWW Engineering provides consulting engineering services for building and infrastructure systems. As an employee-owned firm, KJWW offers a combination of mechanical, electrical, structural, technology, acoustics, architectural lighting, and medical equipment planning services for the highest level of integration among interdependent systems.

Brandon Pierson, PE, LEED AP (left), a senior mechanical engineer at KJWW, reviews a design strategy with mechanical engineer Rachel Korth. Courtesy: KJWWQ: Describe the formal technical mentoring program at KJWW.

A: We mentor experienced and inexperienced new hires. It is important to provide a strong technical foundation, introduce KJWW standards and processes, and integrate new staff into the KJWW community. We use progress reports and discipline-specific competency/experience worksheets. Staff are introduced to design topics, provided with projects using those concepts, and then are rated on their ability to work independently. There is suggested modular training, and the mentors review homework and answer questions. At first, new staff members need considerable attention; it is time-consuming, but the payoffs come as they learn where and how to find information and where and who to go to for additional information and support. Mentoring shortens employee ramp-up time, helps maintain quality and efficiency in our processes, and improves retention.

Mentoring provides a system for orderly growth. There were 17 engineers being mentored in November of 2004, and in 2008 there were more than 275 mentees. More than half of our staff was being mentored. At the time, we were growing rapidly, had acquired another firm, and added another firm location. Currently, there are 64 employees in our technical mentoring program—more than half of them are in our India office.

Most of our professional staff are given an opportunity to be mentors. This is a way for them to “pay it forward,” and it is also a time to discover or develop leadership skills. We always match mentors within the same discipline and within the same team, and try to have them working on the same projects. Each mentor receives Mentoring 101, which clarifies expectations, discusses how to complete progress reports, and reviews the qualities of excellent mentoring. Generally we have found that excellent mentors become excellent team leaders and supervisors. And just to make sure, we survey mentees every six months to find out how we are doing.

Q: How is your informal mentoring program structured?

A: A new team structure has enhanced our staff’s opportunity to receive very individual attention from team leaders, supervisors, and client executives. We truly have an open-door policy, and it is not uncommon to see a relatively inexperienced engineer sitting with one of our principals or associate principals. KJWW staff are great storytellers and are happy to talk about past experiences and share war stories. This type of informal mentoring is really ingrained in the KJWW culture. We have tried to leverage these experience-sharing opportunities with noon seminars, where we feature one or two seasoned staff members in video conference conversations with all U.S. locations. (We don’t currently have video conference available in India.)

Q: What does KJWW offer for staff in its Leadership Development program?

A: An outside organizational psychologist assists KJWW with our Leadership Development project. This begins a process of increased self-awareness and strength development. The human resources department and education managers facilitate quarterly discussions on relevant leadership topics (characteristics of leadership, how to motivate, communication, etc.), and staff can be matched with internal coaches if they choose.

Q: Where does all of this mentoring take place?

A: On the job, at lunch, traveling to jobsites, during noon seminars with small and medium enterprises. As a matter of fact, most interactions are informal knowledge-gathering opportunities. Even our Business Program instructors enjoy KJWW staff. They come early or stay after class to talk with individuals and they are available via e-mail or phone to support staff development. As mentioned earlier, education is part of our culture. It’s very much organized like a family: parents teach children and children teach younger children—with the oversight of the parents. And most staff do not even ask “why?” It’s just the way it is at KJWW.

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