Mentoring in Practice: Jim Young of Boeing

Mentoring in Practice

A Conversation with James A. Young, Vice President – Engineering, Naval Systems/St. Louis Site, The Boeing Company

Q:  How long have you been at Boeing and its predecessor companies? What are some of the roles you have had?

A: I started out at McDonnell-Douglas in 1970.  I was a structural mechanical engineer and I spent my time in strength analysis where I had some really good technical coaches.  I worked my way through there, then had an opportunity to lead a group and work on the production floor for a while.  Then I had the opportunity to be the superintendent of assembly for 18 months.  It is something that an engineer had never done before.  It was a totally different environment and really helped me focus on the people. It became obvious to me, as I continued to move up, that the real key to our future was the people.

Q. Did you have a mentor early on? What did that person do that made him/her your mentor?

A.  I did have a mentor.  He helped me, not from a technical standpoint, but with how I deal with people.  He had great insight into people and how they interact.  One piece of advice he gave me was, “Jim, you will always be a success if you can surround yourself with good people.”  So I asked him, “What are good people?”  He said, “They are people that are committed to you, have the right attitude, and are not ‘yes’ people.” Of the three, attitude is probably the most important.  If you have the right attitude, you probably have the right skills to interact with people. I’m talking about infectious type attitudes, where people want to work for you and they want to be part of your team. He has been retired for about eight years now. I still talk to him today.

Q: Tell me a little bit about how you kind of see your role as a mentor.

A:  I mentor about seven people right now. I really don’t want people to feel stymied and it gets very hard at times because my schedule is unbelievable.  But it has been a really interesting experience.  I have a real cross-section of people. I’ve got three of them that have less than five years experience and are all in engineering. I have two that have in excess of twenty years.  Interesting thing about them is they are not from engineering; they are from some other function.  They bring a totally different perspective. When I start mentoring, we don’t get into it real deep at first. I want them to know me and I want to get to know them.  I want them to understand what I do, because it helps establish that link.  I tell them a lot about my family. I want them to understand that I am not just a guy that sits in the office. I have a life outside of this. I also want to understand about their families, where are they from, what kind of background they have. I just had my first session with one of my new mentees late last week, and come to find out he came from a farming community like I did.  He loves to hunt, and I love to hunt.  So we have some things in common there. I really want to understand about their lifestyles and their families. It’s a balance of your work and home environments.

Q: What have you gotten out of being a mentor?

A: I feel like I’ve been able to make a difference in people’s development as an employee and as a person. What I have really gotten out of it is building that relationship. 

Q: What sort of advice would you give protégés that would really help them to be successful working with their mentors?

A: When they go into a mentoring type relationship, don’t hold back. If there is something that you really want to know and it is really key to your development, ask the questions.

Q: What about to mentors. What would you tell them to try to make them successful with their mentees?

A: The thing I would really emphasize for the mentors would be to be open.  You have got to share some things. One thing that really has helped me is to share things about my personal life.  Also, don’t presuppose answers for them.  Help them work through things; don’t tell them what to do.  Help them work to a solution.  All these recent college graduates are very technically astute. Help them understand that the thing about The Boeing Company is you can be a technical expert. You can move up that technical line, but you can become an even better technical expert if you vary your experience and work on different products using different tools and processes. You become a much more valuable employee and you make yourself marketable.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say about coaching and mentoring.

A: The real issue about mentoring and coaching is that they are used interchangeably and so that becomes very confusing for people.  I mean as far as I am concerned, coaching is technical coaching.  It doesn’t have anything to do with your career development.  It is skill building.  Mentoring is really “where am I going to go, what are some of the things I need to do to build my toolbox.”  And that is really the difference.