How to get a mentor

Gary D. Strack, P.E.
Associate/Director, Structural Engineering
Shafer, Kline & Warren, Inc., Lenexa, Kansas
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee
Presenter, 2008 APWA Congress

In November 2007, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership and management issues entitled "The Baker's Potluck." This was the third series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen," the second being "The Baker's Menu") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's new series is entitled "Recipes for Success" and touches on a variety of leadership and management topics. Along with each article is an actual recipe for a favorite public works dish submitted by a member. Each recipe is a favorite from the members in their department. Give them a try.

While I have not been in a formal mentoring program, I have used other people as mentors informally. So when I started thinking about this article, I decided to ask some fellow members of APWA to provide their experiences and share that with you. The great thing about APWA members is that they are always willing to help you with whatever they can! The first four people I asked all said yes, so don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask a fellow member for assistance. There are also a lot more members whom I would like to ask, but that would take an entire book, so please don't feel slighted if you were not asked to share this time.

These are people I have known for quite some time (except Jim, whom I have known about three years) and have observed them "in action": Chuck Owsley, Director of Public Works for the City of Lee's Summit, MO; Steve Hansen, Director of Public Works for the City of Liberty, MO; Jim Proce, Director of Public Works for the City of Palm Bay, FL; and Patty Hilderbrand, Assistant City Engineer for the City of Kansas City, MO. Steve, Patty and Chuck have had the pleasure of working for or with inspirational leaders such as APWA Past President Myron Calkins. And Jim claims to have been influenced by Past President Bob Albee, Sacramento Chapter member Jerry Way and former Leadership and Management Committee Chair Sue Hann, whom you already know are exceptional leaders in APWA.

Formal Mentoring Program
Only Patty has been involved in a formal mentoring program. Jim, Patty and I have been part of the Emerging Leaders Program at Congress in the past. We guided first-timers to help them get the most out of Congress in this program. Additionally, Patty and Jim participate in the Online Mentoring Program sponsored by the APWA Leadership and Management Committee.

Formal mentoring programs are challenging to implement and require dedication and commitment by the organization's leadership to maintain the program. This may be one of the reasons these programs are so few and far between; and the turnover of an organization's leadership does not help. If your organization is considering implementing such a program, it is important that the participants' and upper management's dedication be verified before implementation. Should it be decided to proceed with a program, the long-term benefits of this program are extensive and far-reaching.

Informal Mentoring
All of us have been involved in informal mentoring whether we realize it or not. It may have been a teacher, coach, supervisor or fellow employee who helped us, but each of us has learned from others around us. I call this "unintentional mentoring." Unintentional mentoring is patterning our behavior after someone else we respect or admire. We can also learn behavior and actions that we shouldn't do based on observing others' bad results. For example, you may remember a time when you were in school, and someone was sent to the principal's office for reprimand and you decided you weren't going to have that happen to you.

Intentional mentoring is when you consciously observe others' behavior and adapt yours similarly. It is also intentional mentoring when you advise or counsel others. Chuck and Steve strongly believe in intentional and unintentional mentoring and have used it throughout their careers as both mentors and proteges. They suggest you be selective in whom you emulate. Jim says his high school baseball coach was a great mentor. A quote from Coach E that Jim likes is: "You will never make that great play unless you are willing to dive for the ball." Think about how that can apply to anything we do in our lives.

Mentoring Qualifications
You might think by asking four different people who are different ages, have different backgrounds, and live in diverse geographic areas, that you would get different desirable mentor attributes. Their advice on mentor attributes is surprisingly similar. Here are some of the characteristics my four cohorts listed in no particular order: experience, personal value system (similar to your own), adaptability, willingness to take risks, willingness to allow others to learn from them, willingness to learn from others, good listening skills, confidentiality, effective communication skills, and high integrity.

A question I have heard is, "Should you have only one mentor?" The answer is yes and no. Yes, you should only have one mentor at a time. If you want to have simultaneous mentors on different areas of your life, that is okay, but you will probably have to work harder than you want to incorporate their guidance into your life. No, if you really want to grow, you should have multiple mentors in your lifetime. Each one will teach you something new or provide a different perspective on something.

If you ask someone to be your mentor and they turn you down, don't worry about it—there are others out there. That person may be uncomfortable in being a mentor or may not have enough time to commit for them to be satisfied that they are meeting your needs. Keep looking. Make your mentor's day, tell them how much you appreciate the example they set and their willingness in sharing with you.

If you think about it, APWA is an "informal" mentoring organization in that you can learn much from your fellow members just by asking them. With infoNOW and the Click, Listen & Learn series, information is always being shared about something on public works. Get involved and share your experience.

Finally, a heartfelt "Thank You" to Patty Hilderbrand, Chuck Owsley, Steve Hansen and Jim Proce for taking the time to share their thoughts with me for this article. If you are looking for a mentor, you might ask one of them.

Gary D. Strack will give a presentation at the APWA Congress in New Orleans. His session is called "Best Places to Work" and takes place at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, August 19. He can be reached at (913) 888-7800 or


8 oz. quick-cook macaroni
8 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
2 (400 grams) cans chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons sun-dried tomato puree
2 medium eggplants, trimmed and sliced
10 oz. mozzarella cheese, drained and sliced

Bring a large pan of slightly salted water to boil and cook macaroni for six minutes until tender. Drain and toss with one tablespoon olive oil. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat two tablespoons oil in a pan and cook the onions for four to five minutes until softened. Add the tomatoes and puree and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

Season, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for five minutes until the sauce has reduced slightly and thickened. Toss with the pasta and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat two tablespoons oil in a large frying pan and cook the eggplant slices, in batches, for two minutes on each side until golden and soft, adding a little extra oil with each batch. Drain on paper towel.

Spoon half the tomato pasta into an ovenproof dish. Arrange half the eggplant and the mozzarella slices on top. Season well, then repeat the layers. Drizzle with the remaining one tablespoon olive oil and bake for 30 minutes.

Ziad Mazboudi, P.E.
Environmental Division Manager
City of San Juan Capistrano, CA
Member, APWA Solid Waste Management Committee