The following is adapted from “Alumni Mentors Paying It Forward,” which appeared in the fall 2018 issue of NJIT Magazine.
One week after graduating from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I kicked off my engineering career at Mott MacDonald. Sitting in Human Resources waiting to be on-boarded, I met Nick DeNichilo as he was passing by to drop off some forms. I was wearing a suit for my first day and he made some quip that, if I kept dressing for success, I’d end up the CEO one day.
I noticed he had a friendly demeanor and sense of humor, so I struck up a conversation with him. Some small talk eventually snowballed into a full-on conversation. It was over a month later that I met him again and realized he was the president and CEO of our firm!
I heard a powerful saying years ago that wisdom is either learned or earned. It’s learned (the easy way) if you reflect upon, listen to, or are taught the successes and difficulties that others have experienced, but it’s earned (the hard way) if you have to go and sweat through the experiences all on your own. Some people do quite well going through the hard work of a self-taught career, but truly successful individuals know when smart work is better than hard work. It would take several lifetimes to go through all the paths of a road in life, but having a mentor allows you to take the wisdom of one or even several people, condense this experience, and accelerate your learning.
For more than a decade I’ve been lucky enough to have Nick as a mentor. Mentorship is a two-way street, but it thrives on a give-and-take relationship. I’ve learned a few lessons that may be helpful to those who would like that kind of relationship:
1. Be teachable. Be open to learning new things, see things from a different perspective, and be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Growth is the product of a new experience.
2. Value their time. Mentors are usually experienced professionals with more demanding schedules and responsibilities. For every 30 minutes they’re willing to share, prepare two to three times that amount before your meeting. Think through your situation, focus your questions, and come prepared with a list of topics for the conversation.
3. Expect support, not miracles. Your mentor is there to provide insight and guidance, not solve your problem or make life’s tough choices for you. Ask your mentor to provide perspective, feedback on your thought process, or identify and link you to other resources/people who may be of help to you.
4. Be grateful. Follow up each meeting with a thank you note. Text messages and emails for our digital generation are good; a hand-written note is better. Never forget to appreciate your mentor’s time.