From Mentee to Mentor: How to Build a Career Based on Learning
I first got to know Stephen (Steve) Sullivan well in 2010 when we worked on a new hydroelectric project together. Steve was already a senior engineer with more than 30 years of experience. The project included close coordination with the USACE and a fish passage design. Through the course of that challenging project, I learned the true value of Steve’s experience and relationships. Since then, Steve and I have worked closely together during our time at Mead & Hunt, and I have benefited greatly from his mentorship and ethical professionalism.
Learning from Steve has been instrumental in my own career growth. Applying lessons from those we admire in our respective fields ultimately makes us all stronger. I asked Steve if he would allow me to interview him and share his story, so that others can benefit from his experience as I have.
Has there ever been a job where you felt underqualified? If so, how did that go?
Yeah, that’s basically the story of my career. I have always reached to do the projects that are on the edge of my ability. You can always rely on other resources to help understand, and I really feel those are the opportunities to learn and grow. I take advantage of them whenever I can.
Especially when I was younger, when I was given an assignment that I wasn’t familiar with, I took that as an opportunity to learn about that subject. Do your research, spend time after hours reading up on the subject and talking to experts if possible. Try to find something about the subject that interests you and dig in. If you can’t find something about it that interests you, maybe that’s not the subject for you.
You are well-respected by our clients and in the professional industry. What is your advice for building strong relationships with clients?
You must be a collaborator—you invite the clients in. Each client will have different expectations as far as what they want their involvement to be, so you have to adjust your style to their expectations. At the end of the day, all clients want to be informed and reassured that you’re making good technical decisions. It is your responsibility to educate them at the technical decision points.
Tell me about one of the greatest accomplishments in your career?
That’s a tough question. Project-wise, I’d say it was the Natomas Levee Improvement Project (NLIP). I think that was a very successful, high-profile collaborative project. The project wasn’t just Mead & Hunt. We collaborated with many other engineering firms and I still maintain relationships with all of them. It was an extremely valuable experience learning how to work with teaming partners to succeed collaboratively.
During the project, some of our staff didn’t understand the big picture. But I knew what the client’s end goals and objectives were, which differed from a straightforward project. Progress was not always linear, and although it didn’t seem like it to some of our team at the time, these detours ended up saving the community a lot of money. The engineering effort was more than a typical project, but we ended up well under budget. This is always a great talking point with other clients.
Who have been some of your professional role models/mentors? Who has influenced you the most in your career?
I had some great opportunities early in my career working for a big company with technical experts who were willing to share. As long as you were a curious person, it was great. I later worked for a small firm under two very different individuals. One of them was really good technically. He helped me hone that area by involving me in different, challenging projects. The other was more of a manager. He taught me a lot about managing and working with people, which is a skill you have to learn. Well, at least I had to learn.
It continues today. Even though I’ve been doing this a long time, I still learn from the staff here at Mead & Hunt. I can always ask our senior hydrologist a question about something and get a very detailed explanation. And same with our senior structural engineer. There are always resources here and outside of the office, if you’re willing to learn.
What do you value most in aspiring engineers?
Enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and go deeper. Some engineers are very task-motivated. They tend to finish a task and do the minimum amount of work to finish—which is appropriate, but I recommend they dig deeper. Go beyond the bare minimum to ask the “Why? Why are we doing it this way?” questions. You grow by challenging yourself.
One final question: why stick around? Why Mead & Hunt?
You know, a lot of people have asked me that question, especially other companies. I like it because it gives me a chance to talk up Mead & Hunt. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position where the company lets me pursue what I want to pursue, so I’ve had a lot of autonomy here. Also, we’ve had many of the same clients for decades; the clients must be sticking with us for a reason. Something’s going right, and I want to be a part it.
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