WTS Board Members Discuss the Importance of Mentorship

Mentorship is a core element of the WTS mission of attracting, sustaining, connecting, and advancing women in their careers to strengthen the transportation industry.  Many WTS members can point to the mentor(s) that guided them into WTS, pushed them to take the next career step, sponsored them into a leadership role, or helped them through a difficult transition.  This month, we want to celebrate those relationships by encouraging WTS members to take advantage of unique member benefits to find and develop mentorships. In addition, we’ve heard from WTS International and WTS Foundation Board of Directors on their experiences in finding mentors and words of advice as you search for a mentor, coach, or advocate.  

The last twelve months have been challenging and isolating for many.  However, now more than ever, is a time to maintain and grow professional relationships, networks, and connections, and even reach out to find a mentor.  Barb Arens, Managing Principal, Cincar Consulting Group, and WTS Foundation Board Director, says,  

“Reach out through LinkedIN, email, or phone to find a time to connect for a short visit, like a coffee break or quick chat virtually.  Be specific on why you want to meet; is it to learn about something they do, how they handled a meeting, or learn about their career?  Most people, if they know the topic, will respond and say yes and schedule time.  If they do not respond the first time, ask again or reach out in a different way. Sometimes people are busy and just miss an email or do not regularly check LinkedIN.  Do not be discouraged!”   

Karen Philbrick, Executive Director, Mineta Transportation Institute and WTS Foundation Board Secretary, provides this advice on connecting in today’s world,  

“You can never underestimate the power of a handwritten note or remembering an important date in someone else’ life.  It is hard to be limited to virtual connection and when we do those small things, we are reminded that we are emotional beings that are full people - not just a small square on a screen.  That said, because we are limited in our ability to interact, I hold virtual, ‘water cooler’ hours so we can use that time to ask about one another.  As research shows, supervisor support is linked to employee satisfaction and increased productivity, not to mention that social support has been shown to ameliorate stress.”  

Mike Sweeney, Executive Vice President, Eastern US President, HNTB and WTS International Board Director, provides this guidance on reaching out to a new mentor,  

“If you have identified someone you admire, take a chance! Ask them if they wouldn’t mind being your mentor.  It’s very flattering to be asked this by someone.  Remember, it’s your career, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself!”  

In addition to mentorship, it’s important to understand the differences between a mentor, coach and sponsor or advocate, and when each may be needed. Odessa Phillip, President & CEO, Assedo Consulting, LLC and WTS Foundation Board Director, provides the following differences,  

“A mentor is a person you go to for guidance and insight.  They teach you things you may need to know and are willing to learn from you what they don’t necessarily know.  A coach is a person who seeks to understand your motivations and then provides support, cheers you on, and provides whatever you need to lead to your success.  An advocate or sponsor, is someone who promotes you, whether you are in the room or not, and helps you promote yourself by giving sound advice and connecting you with those you need to know.” 

Sweeney gave the following definitions of each,  

“A mentor is someone you periodically talk with about your career.  This is a person who gets to know you well and you are comfortable discussing things that are happening as your career develops. A coach may be someone that you only use for a short period of time to focus on improving some aspect of yourself.  This can also be used more broadly, such as a leadership development coach.  An advocate is someone who will ‘go to bat for you’. They will be the person that says you are ready to take on a new stretch goal and are deserving of that promotion.”  

As noted by Phillip and Sweeney, there are times and needs for each in your career.  The WTS network provides an opportunity to find a mentor, coach, and sponsor.  In looking for each, Phillip states,  

“The best way to find a mentor is to look for people who are doing the things you find admirable or inspirational.  If possible, introduce yourself to them and explain your hopes for a two-way relationship.  A coach is someone you may look to hire professionally.  I found my coach by asking others in the industry who could offer me guidance and tips for being the ‘me’ I could be.  An advocate comes about organically. The best way for an advocate to appear, in my opinion, is by doing good work, being in the right circles and networking, and then affirming that you are what you claim to be.  If you are generally knowledgeable, approachable, and open to new opportunities, advocates will appear in your corner.”  

WTS has designed member benefits, like Mentor Match in MyWTS Communities, to promote and enable these types of professional relationships.  Mentor Match allows WTS members to connect with and find mentors and mentees from across North America based on criteria defined by the mentor and mentee.  This program allows for connection with those within your geographic area or a virtual connection with a mentor that may be across the country.  The impact of a mentor is never forgotten. In talking about her mentor, Philbrick states, 

“My mentor taught me to say yes to opportunity and he is the reason that I am in transportation.  Here is why this matters: The transportation sector is multidisciplinary in nature- employing people from the front lines to the C-suite.  Though I am a Psychologist by training, with a double masters and PhD in various psychological disciplines, I found my true passion lied in transportation research.  How did I discover this?  On the first day of my doctoral program, a professor walked into the classroom and asked if anyone was interested in traveling and assisting with a large-scale project as a research assistant.  No further details were offered, but I tentatively raised my hand, nonetheless. I then found myself in Richmond, Virginia working with a class 1 freight rail carrier collecting data on locomotive engineer and conductor sleep hygiene and the impact of scheduling on safety in a 24/7 operation.  As I sat in a yard office in steel toes boots at 3am collecting data, I realized I was hooked- transportation research held the promise of affecting change on a large scale, for the betterment of the individual employee and the system at large. I then changed the focus of my doctoral education, and rather than seeing patients who were mentally ill and chemically addicted, I focused all of my efforts on transportation research.  If I had not said yes to opportunity, I would not be in a field that I am inspired by - after all transportation touches all of our lives in a meaningful way.”  

In reflecting on mentors throughout her career, Arens says,  

“I have been lucky enough to have many male and female mentors in my career.  There are mentors that help with career advice and direction, but there are sponsors that advocate for you to be given opportunities when you are not in the room.  As opportunities arose those mentors and sponsors advocated for me due to the conversations we had.  Best advice is two-fold: ‘Do your best, be timely, and be honest by taking responsibility.’ The second bit of advice was ‘Treat everyone the way you want to be treated.’ You are creating your own personal brand.”  

This April, we encourage our members to dedicate time to finding and cultivating a mentor or even reaching out to a past mentor to thank them for their impact in your career.  We also encourage you to visit our member-exclusive portal, MyWTS Communities, for sharing knowledge and making connections.   Explore what the platform has to offer here and learn how to join in on the conversations.  The WTS Knowledge Lab has curated content for transportation professionals that is updated regularly on Emerging Topics, Key Legislation, News and more.  In addition, in the Your Career section, members can find best practices for industry resumes and networking.  The Mentor Match program is an online networking and career development tool to help you find, connect, and share experiences with other industry professionals.  

Arens, Philbrick, Phillip, and Sweeney provide the closing advice on finding and cultivating a mentor.  Arens says,  

“We all want to grow in our careers, so start with something you want to grow in professionally the most and find a match to address your first growth area.”  

Philbrick says,  

“Be open to opportunity! Whether you are the mentor or the mentee you have the opportunity to engage in a meaningful way with a like minded person who shares a commitment to professional development and a desire to connect.”  

Phillip states,  

“I think every person seeking a mentor/ protegee should be very clear what they want from the relationship up front.  Before entering such a program, they should do some soul searching to determine their needs and desires.  This will be critical when entering the relationship for establishing boundaries and expectations so that the pairing can be fruitful and fulfilling.  They should also be clear about their limitations with respect to time and energy as this can really prohibit full realization of the relationship.”  

Sweeney says,  

“Choosing a mentor can be interesting.  My experience is this happened naturally and in a non-formal way.  I think ideally you want to find someone you admire and are comfortable with.  I think the most can be gained when you have the opportunity to pick your mentor’s brain on any topic.  Also, being able to spend time around your mentor so you can observe and learn from how they handle people, situations, etc. You want to be your own person, but you should also be a sponge and learn from as many people as you can."  

WTS is committed to the advancement of women.  We are fortunate to have members who share our mission and values.  Participating in Mentor Match and dedicating time to focus