It’s not just about sharing experiences and passing on skills: mentorship is a reciprocal relationship that benefits both parties and the industry as a whole.
Four years into his OSH career, Blake May, compliance manager at Transport for Wales can count on the support of not one, but two mentors. He has kitted himself out with guidance and dependability in a profession where instability can be the norm. Starting out as a graduate trainee at Virgin Media, Blake credits the support and experience of these mentors with helping him transition into his subsequent roles. They have allowed him to progress in his career, whether in gaining new technical skills or navigating political and social situations in the workplace.
In a rapidly changing work environment, the skills required from OSH professionals are diverse and complex, and increasingly so. Lorenzo Vinsentin, group head of environment, health and safety at Arriva Group, and one of Blake’s mentors, says: ‘Mentoring is an activity that is relevant to all areas of work, be it manual, technical or professional. None more so than in a supporting leadership role like that of the OSH practitioner who must balance their independence of professional advice to lay managers and colleagues – and thus discharge their legal ‘advisory’ duty – with their position of increasing seniority within their organisation (and among their peers), which comes with its own challenges. Forcing a path through this nuanced minefield is difficult enough for us all – so why do it alone?’
Let’s get talking
However, a mentoring relationship is not merely about working on specific skills with a more senior professional and navigating the complexity of OSH issues. It’s also about getting the right person to talk to about challenges that can’t always be addressed with colleagues.
Blake’s second mentor, Donna Cleaton, group environment, health and safety policy and assurance manager at Arriva Group, points out: ‘When I started my safety career 22 years ago, mentoring wasn’t really discussed and it was pretty much seen as a line manager role. I was typically the only OSH professional in my organisation for the first 10 years of my career so my line manager, while a great line manager, wasn’t a great safety mentor. IOSH is a great place to start to link up with other like-minded professionals.’
Reducing the isolation
This idea of ensuring that OSH professionals are not isolated is echoed by Alex Shannon, a Chartered IOSH Member living in Dubai and working in Oman. With 25 years’ experience, he is now mentoring an IOSH technical member, an Italian professional in London, allowing him to benefit from his in-depth knowledge of health and safety as well as his international background.
He explains: ‘Mentoring is particularly beneficial because our work can become quite isolating at times. Having a mentor can reassure you that you are on the right path while being a sounding board for your ideas. I am at a point in my career where I want to give back and share my experience.
‘Once you start talking and reflecting on what you do, with a fellow professional, you become less isolated and more confident in your professional practice and thus better able to help those you advise. A great part of being a mentor is that I’m also learning a lot from my mentees.’
‘Once you start talking and reflecting on what you do with a fellow professional, you become less isolated and more confident in your professional practice’
Making the right match
To reap the benefits of a mentoring relationship however, matching up the right individuals together is crucial. Donna adds: ‘Mentoring is extremely important to a new or less experienced OSH professional, but it’s vital that the mentee is matched appropriately to the mentor. We all have our different styles and experiences, so the mentee should consider their long-term plan and find a suitable mentor that can assist with that goal.’
Personality tests – such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator – can be useful to make sure individuals can work together. However, having an honest conversation about the needs and expectations of both parties may be even more important.
This is exactly why Alex always plans a first session with his potential mentees to get to know them first: ‘This conversation is to see if their needs match what I can offer. I first ask them to use the IOSH competency framework, together with the SWOT tool on the IOSH mentoring portal to prioritise the areas they want to focus on so I can appropriately help them identify their improvement areas. Coaching is non-directive where mentoring can be quite directive; I combine mentoring and coaching techniques to help mentees dig a little deeper during the learning process to help them achieve their objectives.’
Starting a partnership
Organising an initial conversation about the purpose of mentoring was also an important step for Blake and his two mentors. ‘When I first asked Lorenzo to become my mentor, he didn’t accept at once,’ explains Blake. ‘First, it was important we met up to discuss my expectations. It’s not about gaining a mentor but about starting a mentoring partnership, so both parties must be clear about what they want from it, their time commitment, and what they can bring to the relationship.’
Mentors should have shareable experience and technical skills, but it’s equally important they know how to respond to their mentee’s doubts by displaying soft skills, including empathy and an ability to listen.
What is clear is that if the partnership is carefully set up and thoughtfully developed, and if both personalities match, the mentor also stands to benefit. ‘If you have both negotiated, sold and procured well, you will be a great mentoring match – and that has immeasurable benefit for the mentor,’ says Lorenzo.
‘Not least the satisfaction of seeing your protégé grow as a practitioner, but also (and this goes to the concept of reverse mentoring) the challenge of fresh ideas, new theories of practice and just sheer inquisitiveness, keeps your practice reflective, relevant and fresh. If it doesn’t or you’re not receptive to the idea, maybe you’re not quite ready to become the best mentor that you could be.’
New service: Come together with IOSH Mentoring
IOSH recently launched IOSH Mentoring, a new platform-delivered service to support OSH staff with their professional development, matching members who need skills or knowledge together with those offering these skills or knowledge. IOSH is thus providing the technology and the resources for people to come together.
Matthew Rockley, IOSH head of customer service and experience, says: ‘The platform is built around the IOSH competency framework, allowing members to consistently describe their needs and expertise and matching people together based on what they require.’
Bite-sized videos explain each stage of the process and how the mentoring relationship should be conducted to the best advantage of all participants.
Matthew says: ‘The platform is free for members to use, and there is no limit to how many mentors an individual can call on for support.’