Monday, December 1, 2014

Text by Susan Shullaw

If corporate mentoring” sounds formal and impersonal, Bob Chiusano and Dan Mineck will quickly dispel that notion.

These long-time veterans of two of eastern Iowa’s largest employers—Rockwell Collins and Alliant Energy—are utilizing their extensive corporate mentoring experience to benefit UI engineering students in highly personalized ways. And their efforts are paying off, both for students and their eventual employers.

Lessons in leadership

Chiusano, formerly executive vice president for Commercial Systems and Government Systems at Rockwell Collins, Inc. retired from the company in 2007 to launch a consulting firm devoted to executive coaching and organizational excellence.

Today, he’s starting his second year of teaching a popular leadership seminar at the UI College of Engineering based on his new book, Mediocrity is Not an Option.

“I believe there’s a real need to better prepare young men and women for going out into the working world, in addition to just teaching them the hard skills necessary to accomplish a task,” Chiusano says. “You can learn how to be a great engineer, but to truly succeed, you have to acquire the soft skills of leadership, including how to communicate effectively, work collaboratively on teams, earn the respect of others, lead others to a place they would not go on their own and to pursue a path of lifelong learning.”

As a part of the seminar, Chiusano offers to meet with every student for one-on-one mentoring. “It’s incredibly fulfilling, particularly when I get notes saying, ‘you truly changed my life.’

That’s how a mentor-mentee relationship should work. These relationships help each of us learn and grow.”

Mentoring played a key role in Chiusano’s own career path.

He grew up in Schenectady, New York, and after earning an associate’s degree, began working as a lab tech at General Electric.

“One day, my boss, Jerry, pulled me aside and told me I was underutilizing my skills and should go back to school. ‘I don’t want to lose you,’ he said, ‘but I have to look at what’s best for my employees, and what’s best for you is to finish your education and reach your full potential.’

“I had every excuse in the world to not follow his advice,” Chiusano recalls. “I was 24 years old and helping to support my mother and four siblings. But then I started thinking about it and realized he was right.” Chiusano went on to earn a degree in industrial engineering from the State University of New York and, later, an MBA from the UI’s Tippie College of Business.

“Jerry’s encouragement planted the seed about how important it is to have people in your life who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.”

Parlez-vous teamwork?

Dan Mineck’s approach to mentoring involves plenty of encouragement as well—and sometimes in French. Mineck, who retired in 2004 as vice president of performance engineering and environment at Alliant Energy, is in his seventh year of leading the UI College of Engineering Virtual International Project Team (VIPT) program, in collaboration with colleagues at the Ecole Polytechnique Universitaire de Marseilles.

VIPT is a highly-sought option within the senior design course required for UI mechanical and industrial engineering majors. “Our students work closely with French engineering students over the internet to solve big, long-term problems,”

Mineck explains. “Then French students come here for a week in February and our students travel to Marseilles in May. It’s a super way to get a truly meaningful international experience.”

“In this program, we’re sort of marrying mentoring with work experience and, to be honest, I’m not sure you can separate the two,” Mineck says. “As a young employee, you should be searching out opportunities to learn from others; not just how to do the job, but how to live within a new environment, whether it’s a corporation or foreign country.”

Like Chiusano, Mineck benefited from the guidance of mentors in his life. “I grew up in Cedar Rapids and worked at my uncle’s grocery story during high school,” Mineck recalls. “I had no idea what the term ‘work ethic’ meant until I saw how hard my uncle worked and what he expected of me. That experience had great value.”

After graduating from high school, Mineck was approached by a member of his church who worked for a local utility company. He urged Mineck to contact the company—the precursor to Alliant Energy—about working there as a co-op student while

Mineck pursued his engineering degree at Iowa State University. “I didn’t even know what a utility company was,” Mineck laughs. “This guy arranged several interviews and I agreed mostly to get him off my back. But I did the interviews, the executives got interested in the idea, and I got hired. And I stayed with that company my whole career.”

The Corporate ROI

Both Mineck and Chiusano come from employers with formal mentoring programs, and the two men find their relationships with UI students to be mutually rewarding. But from a corporation’s perspective, why is mentoring—including student mentoring—so important?

“Most companies would say that the broader an employee’s range of experience, the better,” Mineck says. “Exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking expands your own view and leads to better decision making. Whether that exposure comes through a one-on-one relationship with a mentor who’s had lots of different corporate experience, or a program like VIPT, learning from others is key to your own success and the success of your employer.” Chiusano agrees. “Any organization that can fill its ranks with people who are striving to reach their full potential will have a competitive advantage. Imagine an organization where people are motivated, challenged, and energized every day. If you’re doing mentoring well, then the entire organization becomes infused with the passion to learn, have fun, and make a difference each and every day. Those organizations tend to differentiate themselves and come out on top.”