A Mentor’s Advice: Timeless!


I recently contacted Dr. Bret Simmons, who writes one of my favorite  blogs and is a professor at the University of Nevada. I asked if he would see if any of  his graduate students were interested in writing a guest post about a personal story or experience they may have had when they realized the importance of relationships to their leadership. Brett McElhaney stepped up to the plate; his wonderful story is below. Thanks Brett,  for adding your first-person experience to my blog.

Brett McElhaney, the author of this post, runs a structural engineering business by day (www.mcelhaneystructural.com) and is an MBA student at the University of Nevada, Reno by night.  He has an engineering blog (www.mcelhaneystructural.blogspot.com) and a business blog (www.mcelhaney.wordpress.com).

When I was a fledgling engineer, fresh out of college, my first job was at a small A & E (architecture and engineering) firm.  This company was in the business of designing new buildings and was comprised of three main functional areas: architectural, structural engineering and drafting. 

For those who are not entirely familiar with what this means, here is a quick oversimplification: the architects design the building for interaction with its occupants; the structural engineers design it to interact safely with the forces of the earth.  The drafters, under the direction of the architects and engineers, generate the construction drawings.  Historically, the relationship between architects/engineers and drafters has been likened to the relationship between officers and enlisted personnel in the military.  The drafters take direction from the architects/engineers and perform the specific duty of generating drawings while the architects and engineers have more general responsibilities of deciding strategy and direction and dealing with the clients.     

So, being fresh out of the world of academia, I had trouble effectively communicating with and guiding the drafting department and developing of the rapport necessary for a good working relationship.  The drafters were resistant to my direction and resented me for being an IROC (Idiot Right Out of College). In general, I was twenty years their junior, had never worked in the profession and was now in a leadership position. 

The advice

After a little flailing and trial and error on my part, the owner of the company, a seasoned structural engineer and businessman, gave me some invaluable advice.  His advice helped to begin to turn around my leadership dilemma.  He tutored me on how to speak the drafters’ language, to tailor my communication, to use the jargon and lingo familiar to the profession.  Instead of “Please draw this.” I learned to say “Please block out this detail.”  Instead of “Get some drawings going.” I learned to say “Layout the building so I can have something to mark on.”

This change was by no means a panacea; the trust and the human relationships still needed to be fostered over time but ‘speaking the language’ helped to orient the relationships in the right direction and give them some initial momentum.  It also helped to turn around the perception that I was an IROC and had no idea what I was talking about.  The lesson is that communicating effectively and using the jargon that people are used to hearing are invaluable techniques that can foster respect and ease an employee’s acceptance of a new leader.

Ironically, eleven years later, I worked on a job just this afternoon with the most resistant drafter from my early career and we enjoy an ongoing and productive working relationship.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

6 comments on “A Mentor’s Advice: Timeless!

  1. Way to go, Brett! And big thanks to you MJ for the invitation to my MBA students. In case anyone is wondering, IROC means Idiot Right Out of College. Thanks! Bret

  2. This is a great example of communicating effectively to a certain group of specialists. If you don’t know the jargon, then they dismiss. People are very resistant to new leaders that are young or look younger, the perception is that you don’t know anything. A great read, thanks Brett!

  3. Hi Bret, Thanks. I love Brett’s story.

    Eric, We all have different communication styles – some faster, some slower. Some direct, some indirect. Learning how to communicate to others in their style, no matter the profession, is a great tool to have. Thanks for your comments!

  4. Thanks Brett for sharing your experience. I believe that a mentor plays a major role in a IROC’s career. Once my manager told that I talk very fast and he advised me to talk slowly esp. when talking to clients or customers over the phone. I took his advice and I noticed that the quality of calls has improved. Indeed a mentor’s advice is timeless.

  5. Great post, Brett! I can totally identify and it’s great to hear how you overcame your communication dilemma.

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