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GTRI Mentors Help Grow Talent from Within

Published: April 9, 2012


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For Greg Showman, work at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) doesn’t just focus on radar and sensor research. He also takes a large interest in working with junior researchers and fostering their careers.

Showman, who joined GTRI’s Sensors and Electromagnetic Applications Laboratory (SEAL) as a graduate research assistant in 1992, has worked to continue the trend of educating in the workplace.

“Mentoring is not something I feel is my explicit task,” he said. “It just kind of naturally happens, and I enjoy doing it.” He credits this natural focus on mentoring with the start of his first job out of college, as a physicist with the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division, in China Lake, Calif.

“Here I was with this physics degree, which was pretty much useless to everyone there,” he said. “I could tell people were saying ‘So, what do we do with this guy—he knows a little about everything, but not enough to make him productive.’” Instead of stagnating or languishing, Showman counts himself lucky, for catching the attention of—how he puts it—some “grouchy, crusty old senior guys” who took him under their wing.

“I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but years later, I realized they were really taking care of me and helping me to grow,” Showman said. He credits this experience with helping him understand the basics in a research-driven environment: how the organization works, how to perform well technically, and how to follow a project through to the end.

“Any organization owes it to their new employees to mentor and help them along, even if they are not going to stay,” he said. “You hope they stay, but even if they go somewhere else, you hope they have been set up and assisted—I’m an example of that—and we owe our young folks the same. And mentoring is important because most of the work at GTRI is generated within small groups by key investigators. We’re not a hierarchical flow-down, which is good, but it could be easy for someone to fall through the cracks because we’re not highly structured.”


Benefits of Mentorship

 

Rikai Huang, a research engineer with SEAL, has been at GTRI nearly three years. As a result of Showman’s working with her, she wants to mentor when she has more experience. “Greg helped guide me from simulating a field test to processing real field test data,” Huang said. “I was new to the topic, and he not only gave me enough guidance and challenged me, but also enough freedom and courage.”

SEAL research engineer Mike Davis also worked with Showman on several technical efforts, working with him in developing approaches to solving interesting problems, including implementation and performance assessment.

“I have a fair amount of experience, so I don’t necessarily need someone to help me find work, plan my career or fill the ‘usual’ mentor role,” Davis said. “Greg really has helped me gain my technical maturity and solve problems more independently. We also typically discuss effective ways to present arcane technical concepts to sponsors and other researchers.

“Guys like Greg who have been doing this work for a while have a deep understanding of the underlying concepts that make technology work,” Davis said. “I’ve benefited greatly from Greg’s ability to determine why an approach isn’t working and to suggest another one that might work better.”


Mentoring Integral Part of GTRI's Culture

 

As an organization, GTRI works to foster a mentoring culture, either through informal mentoring, as Showman has done, or with its organization-run program, CareerLINK. Created and managed by the Career Management Department, the program partners mentors—senior participants—with mentees—junior participantsthrough a questionnaire and application process.

“The CareerLINK program was started in April 2010,” said Career Management Director Connie Masters. “It was a result of conversations I had with people around GTRI after I first came on board. I met with people in as many different levels as I could and asked, ‘How can this department help you?’”

While Masters says that mentoring was one of the common topics of discussion in her conversations with employees, she also says the concept means different things to different people. “We designed the CareerLINK program to be more of a matchmaking program, working to match GTRI employees based upon what objectives they want to attain,” Masters said. “We don’t tell you ‘This is what you are trying to gain.’ It’s more of a user-defined experience.”

Masters says that some participants join the program for more of a networking opportunity, some use it to gain a better understanding of the different facets of GTRI, while others may use it to gain a technical skill they would like to acquire.

“Once linked, partnerships run on their own,” said Suwana Murchison, CareerLINK’s program manager. “Career Management provides the mentor with a reference guide to assist the process. We request that the relationship continue for six months, during which they complete a template to record the completion of their objectives. After that, it’s up to the participants to decide how long they wish to continue.”

Masters also wants participants to know that you don’t have to be considered new in your career to seek a mentor. “I am enrolled as a mentee, and Jim McGarrah [director of GTRI’s Information and Communications Laboratory] is my mentor.” As Career Management’s director, Masters is able to ask his opinion on current and potential new programs and how best to design and market them to the organization.

CareerLINK has 56 participants. The only requirement is that junior participants must be at GTRI for at least one year. Those interested can sign up via Career Management’s site on GTRI’s internal Web portal.


A Cyclical Process

 

Lisa Ehrman, a senior research engineer with SEAL, has been both a mentee through CareerLINK and a mentor in her lab. For the last two years, she has mentored more than six junior engineers, as well as a protégé from the Missile Defense Agency.

“Mentoring is a practical thing to do,” Ehrman said. “If you’re bringing anyone new into your program, you need to train them and make sure they’re advancing. Otherwise, they won’t be productive and you’ll endure heavy turn-over. It’s also a compassionate thing to do: Many of us remember how terrifying it is to be the new person on the job.”

She calls back to her early work experience at MacAulay Brown Inc., where a mid-career engineer took the time to help her understand how her responsibilities worked and how to get up to speed quickly. “He taught me—by example—how to be persistent, productive and professional,” she said. “His vote of confidence in my abilities was largely the reason I applied to Georgia Tech and hung in there to earn my Ph.D.”

His request to pay it forward—and her desire to strengthen the organization—is Ehrman’s motivation to help other junior engineers as her career advances. “Mentoring improves employee satisfaction and retention, builds trust between co-workers and provides opportunities to set the desired corporate culture,” she said. “What’s not to love about that?”

A sentiment which is echoed by Showman, who says he uses these lasting relationships to help junior researchers advance their careers, but not in the sense of climbing a corporate ladder. “I see a lot of very bright, young people, and I want to see their efforts and careers fully realized,” he said. “If I can help make the path a little straighter or a little easier, then I’m happy to do that.”

In addition to working with others on specific project-related challenges, Showman also wants to help junior researchers understand the hierarchy and structure of GTRI, as well as establishing a solid technical foundation.

“Mentoring is critical for the sort of work we do at GTRI,” Davis said. “The sort of research I do isn’t something you learn in a class or glean from a textbook. You may get the basic tools from those sources, but guys like Greg have been able to share the lessons they have learned on how to apply these skills to the work I do.”

Both Davis and Huang say they hope to be able to give back at some point to junior researchers in their careers. “I’ve already had the opportunity to work with some other junior engineers and help them get up to speed and share some of the lessons I’m starting to learn as I continue in my career.”

In May 2011, Showman was honored by his peers as Mentor of the Year at GTRI’s Distinguished Performance Awards. “I was pleasantly shocked,” he said. “When I was going up to the stage, I was just a little overwhelmed. I heard that there were many people who said nice things in the submissions, and I think that’s better than the award—to have my peers feel that way about my work.”