‘Speed mentoring’ matches mentors, protégés

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Nervous laughter and quiet conversation ensued as participants entered a room set with cloth-covered tables, bowls of mints and punch. Light music played in the background, setting the scene for what looked to be another round of speed dating in the Dayton area.

But on this particular afternoon, the 23 scientists and engineers from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate were not seeking a romantic companion. Rather, they were about to begin a year of career growth and opportunity by meeting their mentoring match.

“It’s like speed dating, but slightly less awkward,” said Heather Marshall, the Enterprise Learning Officer at the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, AFRL. “The goal is to match our young scientists and engineers with experienced members of our team who can help guide them towards future goals by sharing insights and lessons learned that can help them as they move through their careers.”

The event rotated the participants through rounds of eight minute mini-meetings during which future mentees interviewed potential mentors one-on-one, with the goal of finding a good fit for a year-round mentoring commitment. At the end of the event, mentor-protégé matches would be set by Marshall based on attendee feedback.

“Participants were encouraged to come with specific questions to ask potential mentors,” said Marshall. “This way, the participants were able to make the most of the eight minutes. Though the time is short, often enough you know whether you have “chemistry” with a person in the first few minutes you meet with them.”

A dozen senior-level scientists and engineers from disciplines ranging from biological studies to mechanical engineering,  materials research, metals and more volunteered to act as mentors for this inaugural speed mentoring session.

“I believe that mentoring is extremely important for an organization, both formal and informal,” said Dr. Michael Caton, the Assistant Chief Scientist in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, AFRL. “Sharing experiences and learning from each other has a dual-benefit—often mentors learn just as much as mentees during the process. I look forward to helping my mentee to explore opportunities and grow.”

Mentoring programs are a critical component of the Air Force Total Force Development structure and are a focus area of AFRL. Multiple studies show that mentoring relationships can help to develop well-rounded, professional and competent future leaders.

Traditional mentor-mentee matching typically consists of either a random mentor-mentee match or a profile review, where each party reviews the other person’s career profile or biography, with matches made based on shared personal and career aspirations. While a number of these traditional methods result in strong relationships, a number fail due to the missing personal connection.

“Speed mentoring gives the participants a more active role in the mentoring relationship process,” said Marshall. “First impressions are important. You may think you match with a person on paper, but when you meet them, the connection just isn’t there. Chemistry between the two parties is an extremely important indicator of relationship success.”

The mentees, all members of the Directorate’s Junior Force, look forward to gaining career advice from the experienced.

“I was a bit nervous to participate at first—I am an introvert and don’t do well with ‘forced socialization,’” said Katherine Fordon, a program manager in the directorate’s Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division. “However, the whole mentoring program is a great opportunity to broaden my career horizons. I look forward to building a network and getting some advice from those who are more experienced here.”

Overall, the event was a success, said Marshall.

“We wanted to put our young mentees out of their comfort zone, and today was a challenge for many,” she said.  “But, they know that they are getting a unique opportunity to learn from someone with experience, and the discomfort is worth it. These are our future Air Force research leaders, and we want to give them all the tools they need to be a success.”