A Primer on Mentoring in the Maritime Industry
There are very few forms of learning as effective and personal as mentoring. This article looks at mentoring in the maritime community. It discusses the impediments to mentoring, what mentoring is and is not, and the characteristics of healthy mentoring relationships.
If you have read my articles on training in the maritime industry, you may recall that I have spoken about the importance of “informal learning” - that which takes place outside of curriculum-based courses. By many estimates, as much as 70% of professional knowledge comes from various forms of informal learning. There are very few forms of informal learning as effective and personal as mentoring.
This article looks at mentoring in the maritime community. It discusses the impediments to mentoring, what mentoring is and is not, and the characteristics of healthy mentoring relationships. Next week’s article will discuss e-mentoring and its use in the maritime industry. If you would like to be informed when that article is available and have not already signed up to receive notifications, please click here.
But before we jump into mentoring, I want to provide a quick update on the on-line maritime mentoring community initiative. To date we have had nearly 170 amazing maritime industry experts sign up to volunteer as mentors. The comments and outpouring of support has instilled in me a great responsibility to get this community up and going as soon as possible. To that end, I have made progress on a few fronts.
- First - I have made a call for steering committee members. We need about 8 or 10 people from varied backgrounds to answer a few questions and provide general guidance. It should come as no surprise (given the incredible support from all of you) that we have had well over 30 people volunteer. I will form the committee this week.
- Next, we have defined the few additional software features we need to add to our on-line community software to support mentoring. I now have my developers working on those features and we expect them to be complete in approximately two weeks. The primary new feature we are working on is one which will match mentors to mentees based on criteria the user selects such as language, area of experience, location (if desired), etc.
- I have begun working on the necessary documents for the site including a description of mentoring, tips on mentoring, policies for acceptable use of the site, welcome letters, etc. These will be important for new mentors and proteges as they get started in the community.
So the bottom line is that we are working like mad, are well on our way to having the community up and running, and we continue to make rapid progress. I expect we will be up and running in 2-3 weeks from now. I feel honored to be a part of this initiative and am very excited to see it succeed. I really believe it will, mostly due to the wonderful response from all of you.
With the update covered, now let’s talk more about mentoring in the maritime community.
Mentoring relationships can take a variety of forms, but the most traditional (and a very effective) form of mentoring is face-to-face mentoring. However, despite the prevalence and effectiveness of in-person mentoring, it is applicability can be limited in the maritime industry.
The problem is that opportunities to interact face-to-face with a maritime mentor are rare due to the isolation of being at sea and the small size of most crews. Compare a maritime career to a traditional shore-based occupation such as being a teacher or accountant. These professionals may have access to hundreds of potential mentors in their office and through bodies such as professional associations which meet regularly.
When mentoring in the maritime industry does happen, it often occurs between people serving on the same vessel, and is typically short-lived because one of the participants sooner or later ends up on a different vessel or different shift. This is a problem because, as we will discuss later, mentoring relationships are usually best when they are long lived, and when the mentor is not in a position of influence over the protege. This difficulty of mentoring in the maritime industry is especially unfortunate for a number of reasons.
First, maritime practices and traditions are very deep and need to be conveyed from one generation of mariner to the next. Mentoring would be an excellent way of conveying those traditions and knowledge. Second, the maritime industry is in desperate need of attracting new, bright young mariners. One of the best ways to do that in any industry is to raise the awareness and knowledge of the industry through the availability of career mentors and role models. As it stands now, how many mariner role-models are a young person likely to run into in the course of their daily lives? Very few - since most will be at sea! Young people need to see the profession as being full of challenge and opportunity. That is one of the surest ways of raising the number and quality of new employees and, as a result, the success of the profession as a whole. These factors make mentoring a particularly valuable activity in the industry. So there is a real disconnect in the maritime world - a huge need and very little opportunity for mentoring.
Fortunately technology has, in the last few years, provided a mechanism for those not physically co-located to interact with one another. That technology can be used to support mentoring relationships - a form of mentoring called e-mentoring. It is this form of mentoring which a group of people are now in the process of setting up for the maritime industry. I will write more about the activity of e-mentoring in the next article. But for now, whether mentoring is done face-to-face or via e-mentoring, the relationship and the outcomes are effectively the same. Let’s discuss the mentoring relationship, but first make the distinction between mentoring and training.
In the maritime community, there is a wealth of un-codified cultural and general industry knowledge that can only be learned through informal means. Mentoring is a very powerful way to share some of that knowledge.
However, there is, or at least should be, a clear division between mentoring and training. It is important to discuss this because I have seen organizations who attempt to use mentoring, sometimes in the form of job shadowing, as a way to accommodate for shortcomings in their training operations. This is a mistake. Mentoring and training are each very valuable, but they are different activities used to achieve different outcomes. Mentoring is an outstanding supplement to training, but never a replacement for excellent training. Why is this?
One main reason is that the process of mentoring is different than the process of training and mentoring does not lead to reliable and valid learning and assessment. Training should be formal, structured, standardized, and well analysed. Its outcomes should be reliably and validly assessed. Mentoring is not formal, structured, standardized nor well analysed. Its outcomes are rarely assessed.
There is also a major difference in the topics covered during training and mentoring. There are skills and knowledge a mariner or other maritime worker needs to know to do their job safely and efficiently. Those must be trained. On the other hand, there is also personal knowledge a maritime worker needs in order to make important personal, professional and career-related decisions. This is what mentoring is for. A mentor may not be able to tell a protege how a particular piece of equipment is used, but they can tell them what it is like to be at sea for extended periods of time, or what broad opportunities exist for advancement in their industry niche.
Training and mentoring have different goals, teach different knowledge, and require different techniques and tools. They are both extremely valuable, but are very different from one another.
Mentoring relationships are confidential, trust-based, voluntary arrangements between a mentor (someone with significant experience in some area) and a protege (someone who either wishes to work in that area, or is working their way through the ranks). The idea, of course, is that the mentor is able to provide guidance based on his or her experience which will help the protege make more informed professional choices. Mentors are role models, advisors, supporters, leaders, motivators, network enablers and sources of wisdom, experience, and inspiration. The most important characteristics of a good mentor (other than expertise and experience) include a genuine desire to be helpful, good communication skills and patience.
Good mentoring relationships and interactions have a number of characteristics.
- Long-Lived: The best mentoring relationships are often long-lived. That is not to say that good relationships never run their course - they can. However, the value of a long-lived relationship is that the mentor has much more intimate knowledge of the personality, goals and context of their protege. They often are able to follow the protege through many stages of their career. It is this intimate knowledge that enables the mentor to provide appropriate guidance.
- Personal: It is important to realize that mentoring relationship are personal relationships. This goes both ways. Mentors should be personally vested in the lives of their proteges. This personal connection makes them caring and responsive mentors. The implications of the mentor’s guidance on the life of the protege are significant, and the personal connection creates a responsibility to the protege to respect this significance. Likewise, proteges need to feel comfortable sharing their questions and concerns with their mentor - especially those which might be difficult to share with a superior or peer. They need to feel as though they can trust their mentor, and this trust only comes from respect and, for lack of a better word, intimacy.
- Unconflicted: Mentors should never be in a position of conflict or influence with respect to their protege. They should not be a superior of the protege, should not be part of a regulatory body which oversees the work of the protege, should not be from highly competitive companies, and ideally should not work at the same company as the protege. I realize that this last point goes contrary to most maritime mentoring relationships. I have heard from dozens of mariners who owe huge debts of gratitude to, for example, a captain from their past who took them under their wing and acted as their mentor. These were, undeniably, very successful mentoring relationships. Therefore, you may or may not agree with this point, but it is important to consider it, regardless. Most experts on mentoring argue that such a relationship can never reach its full potential because there will be some topics which are difficult to broach due to the superior-inferior relationship.
- Mutual benefit: The benefit of the mentoring relationship bestowed to the protege is generally well understood. The mentor will challenge their protege, support them, guide them, and even open doors or make connections to others that will be of real benefit to the protege. But interestingly, whenever you speak with a mentor, you invariably hear of the incredible benefit that they, too, have derived as a result of the relationship. For myself, as a past mentor to a very large number of university students, I found that being a mentor challenged me, kept me sharp, and kept me connected with and informed on the needs and issues of young academics. I always learned something from each of these relationships, and every one of them was highly satisfying and rewarding - especially when I felt as though I made a real difference in someone’s life. The benefits of mentoring flow both ways - being a mentor is not a strictly philanthropic experience.
Clearly these four characteristics, while arguably some of the most important, only touch the surface of what makes a healthy mentoring relationship. I will write more on the nature of mentoring in subsequent articles.
Next week’s article will discuss e-mentoring and its use in the maritime industry. If you would like to be informed when that article is available and have not already signed up to receive notifications, please click here. Until then, sail safely!
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About The Author:
Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.