Mentoring Skills


Tom Williamson

Tom Williamson

I was nervous that the training would involve role play, something that I often find awkward and artificial in a training environment. But that didn’t happen, thankfully… It was more practising some of the skills and the exercises were well balanced. I found being on the course allowed me to take a step back and reflect. A lot of what we touched on is transferrable to other scenarios.

Verified by an engineer

“I studied Mechatronic Engineering at Lancaster University,” says Tom, 46. “It’s a blend of mechanical, electronic and computer engineering, where you examine systems such as robotics, digitally controlled engines and self-driving cars. After graduation, I joined Bombardier on the graduate scheme, designing and manufacturing trains. In my time there, I worked across train control systems, vehicle systems and technical assurance roles, and became Head of System Engineering.

“I moved to my present company in the rail infrastructure sector in 2012. It was a small organisation and I didn’t have a team to manage. It’s much bigger now. As Railway Systems Engineering Director, I’m in the Central Engineering Team, and I report to the Chief Engineer. We are the technical authority and systems integrator for the railway, setting the specifications, overseeing integration, procuring and managing the design and build contracts, lead on testing and so on.

“I have a number of discipline heads who report to me. I have been fortunate to have completed a number leadership programmes both at Bombardier and my present company to help me develop as a leader.”


What role does mentoring play at your workplace?

“We do quite a lot of mentoring, not just for our engineering graduates, but for others, too. It has tended to be focused on those who we feel have particular potential or certain development needs.

“In my view, the mentoring-mentee relationship needs to be carefully balanced, ideally, with the mentee leading the work . If it’s only the mentor that’s got the training, it puts them in the position of having to drive the process.

“For me, an important aspect is trying to ensure there’s a balance of training for both mentor and mentee, so that they’re talking the same language and have similar aspirations. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. That’s something we’ve been striving towards.”

What issue were you facing that led you to take the Mentoring Skills course?

“I’ve acted as mentor for many individuals, but only in the last year-and-a-half have I started as a mentor to a graduate engineer working towards Chartership. I really wanted to ensure that I was mentoring as effectively as I possibly could. It’s quite a big investment of time for me, but it’s also very important for the graduate and the business that we develop skills effectively. I felt that a day on this course, really focusing on what we’re trying to do with our mentoring relationship, was a good use of time.

“When I started out at Bombardier, I had a very good mentor. He really challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. He didn’t force me to do anything but he heavily encouraged me to go and work elsewhere in the business. Although I came back to a more specialist role later on, it gave me a better perspective and understanding of how my specialism fitted into the bigger picture.

“Over the years, I’ve thought about how beneficial it was to have that mentoring relationship with somebody who had really good business acumen. Someone who understood how I might fit into a large engineering organisation in the future. I wanted to try to replicate that as much as I could in the relationship with my mentee. It felt I had the experience but not necessarily the knowledge of how to be a good mentor.”

What was your experience of the course?

“There were about 12 people on the course, with a good mix of very different businesses and at very different levels of their career. There was some pre-course prep work around understanding how Mentoring for Monitored Professional Development Schemes (MPDS) works.

“The trainer took us through the basic IMechE pack but added his own content and experience, which brought it to life. It added a practical and personal view to the course. We would break to complete a number of exercises, sometimes in pairs and some whole group activities. I was nervous that the training would involve role play, something that I often find awkward and artificial in a training environment. It’s not my forte. It was more practising some of the skills and the exercises were well balanced.

“I found being on the course allowed me to take a step back and reflect. A lot of what we touched on is transferrable to other scenarios – for example, it’s always good to be reminded of what an effective meeting looks like. It was a good use of time, enjoyable, interesting and I recommend it to others.”

What were three key learnings you took from the Mentoring Skills course?

1 “Understanding how to create an effective mentoring relationship, that works for the mentee, the mentor and their organisation.”

2 “It’s helped me understand the subtle differences between mentoring and coaching.”

3 “The course encouraged me to contemplate the difference between my role as a manager and my role as a mentor – and helped me alter my approach.”

What do you do differently now?

“Before the course, my mentoring meetings were good discussions but not as targeted as I wanted them to be. I didn’t come into each discussion thinking, ‘Here’s the purpose of today,’ or finish thinking, ‘Have we achieved that purpose at the end?’

At the next meeting after the course, I sat down with my mentee and we detailed a month-by-month process. Some of it is just general, good housekeeping stuff, like making sure we’re keeping notes so that we remember what we agreed last time, but we are also being clear on our expectations of each other. It’s definitely improved our meetings.

“One of the things I’ve been conscious of is how do you overcome the potential conflict of interest between what’s good for the business and what’s good for the individual.

“Something else I hadn’t really thought about until this course was the idea of creating a mentoring culture within our organisation. ‘How does a business work with mentoring?’, as opposed to ‘How do individuals work with mentoring?’ If people feel like they are being listened to and the business is helping them develop capability, then mentoring can improve allegiance to the organisation and help retain staff. It’s a key benefit of mentoring I hadn’t fully considered before.”

Three pieces of advice you’d give future attendees

1 “This course will be more effective if attendees have some experience of mentoring. It’s always easier trying something and thinking about how you do it better, rather than just starting with training.”

2 “Explore what training your mentees have had. That will help you line up both the mentor’s and mentee’s training. You will then act on the outcomes of the training more effectively.”

3 “I think it is worth being familiar with Mentoring for MPDS. That content is not really covered in this course but I found it useful to have that knowledge. It meant the procedural side was sorted in my mind, and I could concentrate on the softer skills.”

What’s next for you?

“I’ve been involved in supporting and establishing the MPDS scheme within my organisation. After completing the course and as a relatively senior leader here, this is one area that I want to follow up on as a personal challenge. I want to help my company create formal and informal relationships which ensure as many people as possible are benefiting from mentoring, both as mentors and mentees.

“On a personal level, I have two teenage daughters and I am keen to encourage them, but not force them, to consider a career in a technical discipline. Engineering is massively under-represented by women. If I can use some of the skills I learned on the course to help communicate why engineering might be right for them, that’s great.”

Mentoring skills

  • Duration:
    1 day
  • Location
  • CPD Hours:
  • UK-Spec:
    C, D, E