NATICK, Mass. -- The Mentoring Pilot Program at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, has created a circle of learning and empowerment, providing insight and growth to both mentors and protégés.

The program brings together mentors and protégés/mentees, who benefit from the experience and broad perspective of mentors. Mentors provide support, unbiased feedback, and help protégés navigate decisions and set goals. Mentors can also facilitate connections and collaborations with other NSRDEC employees.

NSRDEC's Joanna Graham was initially the lead for the pilot program before handing it off to Andrea St. George, G-1 Human Resources. Graham believes that the mentor/mentee relationship can be particularly helpful when the protégé is faced with an important career decision.

"There is inevitably going to be 'that day' in everyone's career where you reach a crossroads or tough decision," said Graham. "Navigating those decisions by yourself can be a daunting task. Navigating them with a trusted mentor can be a powerful process, giving a safe space to think through the decision and get a perspective from someone you trust and respect. This program is important because it creates an opportunity for our workforce to connect and seek out resources for 'that day'."

St. George believes that the mentor/protégé relationship is mutually beneficial and key to knowledge transfer and preservation.

"The relationship between a mentor and a protégée is an important one that allows employees to know they don't have to go it alone," said St. George. "There is so much knowledge here at Natick and this mentor/protégée relationship is one place where knowledge is transferred -- whether that's how to navigate a career path or learn a new technology or simply open the protégée's eyes to something they didn't know was available. The relationship isn't necessarily one way either. More seasoned employees might help newer folks with skills learned over time like political savvy or business acumen whereas younger mentors might teach older protégées about new communication styles or technology preferences. This program enhances relationships by increasing the connections where unbiased feedback can be delivered and where new ways of navigating decisions are supported."

There are many mentor/mentee stories unfolding at NSRDEC, and the following examples represent just a few of the many mentorships taking place throughout the organization.

Michelle Zakrzewski is a secretary/office automation at NSRDEC. She is being mentored by Doug Chesnulovitch, lead strategic planner for NSRDEC. Zakrzewski believes that the Mentoring Pilot Program has helped her to better understand the organization and her career development.

"The mentor/mentee relationship that I have created with Doug has helped me to enhance my skills, gain a clearer perspective on career development and has furthered my growth as a professional," said Zakrzewski. "Mentoring has been a positive influence on my life, and it has been wonderful to work with Doug who has many years of work and military experience to his credit. His wisdom and expertise have provided me with a direction to follow and with a lens to look towards the future."

John Player, team leader, Biological Sciences and Technology at NSRDEC, is also being mentored by Chesnulovitch.

"Given the number of retirements we are seeing -- and will be seeing in the next number of years -- this is a really important time for NSRDEC to stand up a mentoring program," said Player. "So much knowledge and experience are walking out the door, and we need to enlist multiple ways to transfer that knowledge to the newer employees so that the institutional knowledge doesn't disappear with the retirees."

Chesnulovitch is a strong believer in the positive power that mentoring can have on an organization. He believes that trust and commitment are at the heart of a successful mentor/protégé relationship and that mentors must be fully committed from the start.

"I believe strongly that this is the 'X factor' that will take NRSDEC from good to great," said Chesnulovitch.

NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate includes an informal, interesting and intertwined trio of mentors and protégés, all of whom work on the Food Engineering and Analysis Team. Ann Barrett mentors Nicole Favreau Farhadi, who in turn mentors Lauren O'Connor.

O'Connor has reaped benefits from these relationships as well as interactions with other mentors at NSRDEC.

"I have benefitted from multiple mentors, with activities ranging from day-to-day coaching to long-term future planning," said O'Connor, an NSRDEC CFD food technologist. "My mentors have fostered my personal and professional growth by providing their invaluable support, encouragement, and guidance. They push me to do things I never thought I could do, such as publishing in a peer-reviewed journal as first author. Their real-life experience and wisdom is truly priceless."

"I am the mid-career scientist of the group," said Farhadi, an NSRDEC CFD research chemist. "I have been a mentee of Ann's for most of my career and have been a mentor to Lauren for most of her career. I would also say that I am sometimes Lauren's mentee and Ann's mentor -- as we all have something to offer each other."

Farhadi describes Barrett, a CFD chemical engineer, as a willing mentor who is a "successful and approachable scientist."

"I am able to ask questions and seek guidance in a judgement free zone," said Farhadi.

Farhadi emphasized the importance of mentors being mentors because they want to be and not because they feel obligated. She said that encouragement and being truly happy for one another's achievements are key to the success of the relationships she, Barrett and O'Connor share. She also acknowledged that their supportive team leader, Laurie Oleksyk, plays a key role in their highly beneficial mentor/protégé interactions.

"I would also add that our team leader encourages mentoring and provides an atmosphere that focuses on teamwork (within and outside of our team), collaboration and the mission," said Farhadi. "I believe that that is the reason that our mentoring relationship is so solid."

Barrett believes she benefited immensely from mentors early and throughout her career and she now feels eager to mentor others.

"Throughout my career I have benefited greatly from the mentorship of two senior scientists at Natick, Dr. Irwin Taub and Dr. Armand Cardello, and my PhD advisor, Dr. Micha Peleg (University of Massachusetts Amherst)," said Barrett. "Each provided not only technical guidance but also invaluable advice and encouragement about career growth. Each also became an important and long-standing scientific collaborator, as well as a co-author on multiple publications. More recently, I have had the privilege of mentoring younger scientists on my team. These individuals have in turn become valued collaborators. I have experienced first-hand, and from both perspectives, the energy and synergy resulting from mentor-mentee relationships."

Throughout NSRDEC, people believe in the power of mentoring.

"While, for me, being mentored and acting as a mentor has seemed rather organic, I believe that the mentoring process (however it comes about) is extremely beneficial to any organization," said Barrett. "I used the word 'synergy' before, but I think it bears repeating. People are more productive when they help each other out and collaborate. It also makes for a pleasant and sociable work environment."

"From my perspective as a mid-career technical supervisor, it is very helpful to have a seasoned mentor, who has a wealth of government experience to vet ideas for challenge resolution or to talk with about the range of management styles and their advantages/disadvantages," said Player. "Getting a new perspective from someone with immense experience is truly invaluable."

"The mentor/mentee relationship is very important to professional development and it has provided me with the opportunity to learn more about myself and to discover what direction to follow," said Zakrzewski. "I recommend the mentoring program to anyone at NSRDEC who wants to create a meaningful relationship of mutual knowledge exchange and networking."

"By the way, mentoring is a two-way street," said Chesnulovitch. "I'm getting as much understanding and support from them as I'm giving to these wonderful folks. In the end, it's all joy."

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The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the Nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.