Mentoring Minority Engineers and Scientists in Industry

W hat Is Mentoring?

Informal mentoring has existed since the dawn of humanity. Next to parenting, it is perhaps the second most important element in the development of civilization and the continuity of culture. If we consider certain major components of parenting to be mentoring, then it has been the prevailing methodology by which the continuous components of civilization and culture are passed on from one generation to another. In that sense, mentoring thereby builds society and binds community.

This long-practiced process of mentoring has a name derived from the role of Mentor in the story of Homer's Odyssey. A trustworthy family friend, Mentor was very effective and reliable in guiding and developing his ward or "mentee," Telemachus, the son of the long-absent Odysseus. So although some form of mentoring exists today in almost every human endeavor, we realize that the degree to which this relationship is recognized and cultivated is the degree to which value and benefits are derived from it.

Why Mentor?

It is therefore important to identify, recognize, and cultivate mentoring relationships. The more evolving and complex the enterprise, culture, or society, the more essential it is to have effective mentoring for those developing in it. This is especially true if that development is expected to yield effective, efficient, productive and innovative team-oriented participants. Scientific, engineering, and technical knowledge is important, but it is not enough to achieve these expectations. These assets alone will see infrequent and ineffective use and yield little value to the organization, or benefit to the individual, without having a well-coordinated fit between the two. To achieve this fit, those developing in an organization must understand and come to appreciate its culture and its values. Mentors facilitate this cultural development and value crystallization, which then paves the way for smooth and effective technical interaction throughout the organization.

Mentors can minimize mentee frustration and help build and maintain high morale among those who are developing within an organization by explaining the unwritten rules and politics of the organization and its ancillary affiliates. It is important that engineers and scientists who begin their careers with excitement, filled with bright hope and aspirations of making significant contributions to their technical community and the organization for which they work, do not feel frustrated by organizational structure, operations, or interactions that they do not understand. The lack of understanding of these important factors can negatively affect the morale of the mentee.

Entering interns who have found great satisfaction in understanding and using calculus, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics can become quite frustrated from observing the behavior and output of human operational systems that they have never mastered and do not understand. This frustration can lead to low morale and the concomitant low performance and creativity, especially when such systems, or their output, adversely affect the career path of the mentee. Therefore, the mentor should try to explain the politics of the organization and associated relationships to the mentee before a decline in morale begins. In some cases, appropriate humor can be used to accomplish this with no adverse implications.

In addition to explaining as well as demonstrating awareness and conformance to the values, culture, social practices, dress, and politics of the organization, the mentor must inspire confidence and individuality in the mentee. This confidence and eagerness to make appropriate decisions and act on them is an essential trait needed for effectiveness in today's lean, agile organizations, where people are empowered to take reasonable risks. Such confidence must be held concurrent with open communication, so that decisions and concomitant actions rightly represent the consensus of the team and its leader, although they are not always derived from them. Mentees must also be made aware that pressures, disappointments, or mishaps external to the organization may influence human interactions within the workplace or produce adverse human reactions that cannot be explained by events observable within the organization. Mentors must help the mentees be aware of these human realities, so that such situations do not erode confidence, reduce morale, or cause long-term damage to relationships or communication.

Why Have a Mentoring Program?

Since we see that mentoring happens in every enterprise, with or without a formal program, it is to the advantage of each organization, institution, or industrial enterprise to recognize and cultivate this process in order to enhance its effectiveness and expand its scope. Mentors can be taught the appropriate approaches, methodologies, knowledge, and skills that have proven to be effective in their organizational environment and culture. Organizational support of the process and visible leadership by senior management can provide an environment for optimal efficiency and maximum effectiveness.

An organized mentoring program should also cover those areas and people where mentoring offers high added value. It is essential to include those who are underrepresented in careers derived from the physical sciences and engineering disciplines. Such efforts are important because these individuals are often unlikely to have spontaneous connections with colleagues that develop into coaching or mentoring relationships. Thus, underrepresentation has been a self-perpetuating situation for many years. The slow increase in concentration during the last century has not nearly kept pace with the increase in minority representation in other, more highly visible careers.

This slow increase can be understood in light of the low public visibility of all scientists and engineers. Minority scientists who have achieved significant international stature are, like their majority colleagues, usually visible only in the science and engineering media. But the many engineers and scientists who are parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends, etc., can have a profound inspiring and motivating impact within their sphere of influence, where their concentration is high, their contact personal and often, and their visibility frequent. Like gas molecules, the frequency of these energy-exchanging impacts are a function of their concentration. Underrepresented minorities miss these impacting influences because of the aforementioned low concentration of minority engineers and scientists in their environment.

Recognizing the "thermodynamics" of the situation, some technical societies and major universities have already instituted programs to increase the exposure of underrepresented minorities to the physical sciences and engineering disciplines. Having attracted these students to such fields, some universities are also providing mentoring and tutoring to minimize the dropout rate among them. This approach has yielded encouraging retention and performance results.

These same observations, and the approaches to improving the situation, can be applied to industry. Once minority scientists and engineers are trained and attracted, the enlightened industrial enterprise should provide a program by which contact among them is enhanced and mentoring is encouraged, even arranged. This is especially important where their numbers are low and therefore contact is infrequent or improbable. There are many excellent publications and other resources that can help guide the development of an effective mentoring program. When the effectiveness of such programs is optimized and their efficiency maximized, they can enrich the individual participants as well as the entire institution or enterprise.

Mentoring Minorities at DaimlerChrysler

Such has been the experience here at DaimlerChrysler Corporation, where mentoring has been under way for years. This informal but somewhat structured activity has been extensive throughout the Chrysler Group. In particular, it has been an essential part of the development of engineers, specialists, and technology experts in areas of the company where technical competencies that are core to the automotive engineering and manufacturing enterprise reside. This process has been a major source of supply for those who have helped to make the term "Chrysler Engineering" a hallmark of our corporate history.

Having seen the rewards reaped from this engineering- and technology-focused program, some employee-support organizations of the Chrysler Group have been motivated to implement more extensive, formal mentoring to accelerate employee development and, consequently, enhance their contribution to the corporation. One such program has been under way since the DaimlerChrysler African American Network (DCAAN) initiated it near the turn of this century. The program has the very visible support of senior management. It was organized by the leaders of DCAAN and is currently directed by them. This mentoring program was piloted for a year by pairing the DCAAN volunteer corporate executives with recently employed minority engineers enrolled in our graduate-engineering program, while serving in rotating assignments designed to accelerate career development.

After the successful completion of this pilot program, the current formal DCAAN mentoring program was initiated. It began with the matching of mentors and mentees. Corporate executive mentors who are DCAAN volunteers were matched to mentees by specialty, usually avoiding supervisory relationships. After one or more mentor-mentee meetings at the workplace, two formal orientation sessions were provided in late June 2002, with books, lectures, and discussion, at which time each mentor-mentee pair attended one of the sessions together. This program is now under way and has already proven to be a rewarding experience for those participating; however, with only 3 months to acquire data, no results are being reported herewith. Nevertheless, because of the subtly ubiquitous and pervasive nature of mentoring, it is certain that an organized, optimized program, with senior management support, will yield more fruitful results than fortuitous mentoring left to happen without arrangement, optimization, organization, or encouragement. Therefore, with these factors in place, we expect the extraordinary!

Gilbert B. Chapman is a Senior Manager of Advanced Materials at Liberty and Technical Affairs, DaimlerChrysler Corp. Machelle A. McAdory is a Senior Manager for the Human Resources Center. For general information, send e-mail inquiries to and For more information about DaimlerChrysler please visit the company's Web site.

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