Where it started
Four years into my engineering career, I went through a major change in which I crossed over from a technical R&D role to a product management role. Not only was the nature of my work going to change but I was going to manage a line of products used by the Navy. Having spent the previous four years working on products used by the Army, my knowledge of the naval branch was limited at best.
As I stepped into the role, I was assigned a consultant who was going to be my main collaborator on the program. This gentleman’s name is Alan Ross and he was a 28-year veteran of the US Navy who had transitioned into an industry consultant role a few years prior. His job was to help me make the key connections within the US Navy and to set up the necessary conversations with the right people, with the objective of having me develop that market. Alan did his job brilliantly and, before too long, succeeded at getting us a presentation with the US Naval Surface Forces Pacific at Coronado, CA. This presentation was a huge opportunity and a very big deal!
I remember preparing for the presentation for weeks and, when the day came, I was confident that I was ready. As it turns out, I was not ready, not by a long shot. I will spare you the details of my humiliation that day but will leave you with the following image: 26-year old me, as the only civilian in a room full of Naval officers asking complex questions that I couldn’t answer. If that image alone isn’t enough to convey the depth of my humiliation, now picture these officers smirking as they, one by one, started to stand up and leave the room. I was horrified! Alan was in the meeting with me, he tried to come to my rescue a few times but there was only so much he was able to do. Following that disaster, I wanted to get back to my hotel room and hide from the world until my flight the next day. Instead, Alan insisted on us going to lunch so we can, as he so well put it, lick our wounds.
The three important characteristics of an impactful mentor
As a business consultant, he could have used the time we had together that afternoon to conduct a post mortem, analyse our (my) missteps and develop a recovery plan; this was, after all, a potentially huge client and he was paid to help me win this contract. Instead, Alan took a completely different approach.
- Alignment: First and foremost, he included himself as part of the problem; he aligned with me and put himself on my team – the disaster that I created had now become our disaster.
- Empathy: He showed sympathy by recounting anecdotes of the times he messed up throughout his career and how, as he has often pointed out to me since, “this too, shall pass”.
- Championing: He gently but clearly expressed that in order for me to be able to recover and keep moving forward, then I needed to “suck it up”. It was important for me not to let this one event define me.
This event happened 20 years ago and even though I didn’t realise it at the time, a natural and organic mentorship relationship was being formed between us.
I have since then changed roles and moved industries numerous times. Throughout all those changes, one of the common threads has been Alan’s mentorship and his willingness to be my go-to-person when big career decisions needed to be taken or when my confidence wasn’t where it needed to be.
Mentorship – leverage it throughout your career (and life)
Throughout the last 20 years, I have been fortunate to occupy a number of different positions that span a broad spectrum of industries and roles. In each one of these roles I have had the pleasure of coming across people who were willing to share their own experiences and learning with me. I make it a point to seek out those individuals with whom I have a good personality fit, and proactively ask them to mentor me in specific areas. Some of these people, all of them wonderful, have had a long term and consistent presence in my life while others have come in and out on a regular basis. Regardless of the nature of our relationship, I have learned and grown from my dialogue with each one of them.
The mentorship relationship that I developed with Alan – or, rather, that Alan allowed me to develop with him – has had an enduring impact on me as a professional and as an individual; it has set the foundation for how other mentors entered my life during its different stages. This relationship has also allowed me to be a better mentor when the opportunity presents itself. I make sure to align, empathize, and champion my mentees, creating an environment where they feel supported and uplifted.
About Nayla Feghali, P. Eng., PPCC
Nayla Feghali possesses a solid Engineering and Management background as well as a Certification as a Professional and Personal Coach. She seamlessly combines technical expertise, powerful leadership skills and coaching and mentoring ability in every role she take son. Her industrious career started in the Canadian Forces (Army Reserves) and led her today to Desjardins where she leads a team of 200 project managers and business analysts as a PMO Senior Director. She has worked with countless established leaders and paved the way for many emerging leaders throughout the years. Championing women in the engineering field, Nayla has set up the local hub for the Medtronic Women Network (MWN) as well as the Society of Women Engineers Network (SWEnet).