Me and my mentor: Karen Thomas reports on Women in FCERM's mentoring programme

Could a mentor help you to break through to the next level of your career; how does the relationship work? Or could you become a mentor and benefit from doing so? Karen Thomas reports

Women in FCERM (WiFCERM) has spent this summer pairing mentors and mentees for its 2021 mentoring progamme. The women-only initiative unites experienced professionals working in flood and coastal-erosion risk management with those seeking advice and guidance to develop particular aspects of their careers.

It aims to support women across the FCERM sector, building their confidence and helping them to grow and progress as professionals. This year’s programme follows a drive to recruit WiFCERM mentors and builds on lessons learned from the group’s mentoring pilot that launched last year.

WiFCERM matches mentors with small groups of mentees who have all faced specific challenges or identify particular common areas requiring personal growth. Group mentors work individually with each mentee, and the mentees form a support network for each other, sharing their own insights and experiences.

So how does the mentor/mentee relationship work? We invited some WiFCERM pairs from the first intake to explain.

Clare Dinnis and Clare Rodgers

Clare Dinnis and Clare Rodgers are familiar faces, as regular contributors to The Environment. Rodgers started searching the agency’s mentoring spreadsheet last January, having joined from Royal HaskoningDHV.

Rodgers’ wishlist was a senior woman, with extensive agency experience who had also worked part time. She wanted support outside her own team from a mentor who could help her to gain confidence as a young, female leader.

Before lockdown, the agency encouraged mentees to look for local mentors. But Rodgers set her heart on working with Dinnis, who shares her background in water quality, despite the distance between northeast and southwest. An initial chat revealed their common ground and they took things from there.

Dinnis approaches mentoring having also been a mentee. She continues to turn to her mentor for support as well as building her own networks. She and Rodgers agreed parameters and set objectives ahead of each session – “Clare is by far the most organised mentee I’ve ever had,” Dinnis laughs.

After each session, they agree what to discuss next time; this can change to fit new developments or priorities. “It’s a safe space for me to be able to say, this issue has come up within my team,” Rodgers says.

Although both see a difference between mentoring and coaching, sometimes their discussion shifts towards the latter. When Rodgers faces particular challenges, they discuss how Rodgers can work towards specific outcomes.

“Mentoring is a continuing conversation,” Dinnis says. “Coaching is about helping the coachee to achieve specific outcomes. This relationship has been about asking Clare questions – questions on which I definitely have opinions – but encouraging her to consider the answers for herself.”

What’s the recurring theme? Confidence in its broadest sense, Dinnis says. “Yes, Clare is young, and has a family. My role has been to empower her.”

Support has worked both ways. Rodgers, a CIWEM activist, hesitated to apply for fellowship. Dinnis insisted she applied. Rodgers then pointed out that as one of the industry’s most senior women, Dinnis should surely also apply herself.

Rodgers became FCIWEM last autumn. And Dinnis is finalising her own application. “This is not selfless,” Dinnis concludes. “The mentor always gets something out of this. I’ve been telling myself for years to apply for fellowship. Clare has pressed me to follow my own advice – go ahead and just do it.”

So what has the relationship achieved? “Clare has been there, giving me that nudge,” Rodgers says.

“She’s helped me to focus on what I can achieve, to ignore any chips on my shoulders and to find my own way.

“She’s given me confidence to set my own priorities.”

It’s helped both to expand their own networks, Dinnis adds. “Clare is incredibly active and well-connected.

“But what’s been amazing, working together, has been to see her develop and grow in confidence – to become more serene about who and what she is. Women – and especially women with small children – often need to make peace with themselves and their priorities.”

Clare Dinnis is area director for the West Midlands and Clare Rodgers leads the NEAS operation unit at the Environment Agency

Maria Herlihy and Caroline Barford

Maria Herlihy had an intriguingly varied career before joining the Environment Agency, via the trading floor of the London Stock Exchange and a stint as prison governor at Pentonville Prison. She has worked to increase the proportion of women in the agency’s field operations, from just 1 per cent three years ago, to 14.5 per cent today.

That work brought her to WiFCERM. “Looking back, it’s always been in very male-dominated environments,” she says.

Caroline Barford’s family encouraged her to become a civil engineer. Her work in local government has focused on community and building resilience and she mentors junior staff on her own teams. Having switched from operations to a capital role, she wanted to pass the experience of being mentored on to more junior members of her team.

WiFCERM put Herlihy and Barford into a mentoring group of four women of disparate ages and backgrounds to share experiences of building resilience. The group met online every four to six weeks, through flood and pandemic.

“One member of our group went through a particularly traumatic time and we worked to support her through that with amazing results,” Herlihy recalls. “Working to build resilience has been apt for these times. We contact each other any time we want advice or a chat, mostly via WhatsApp. Now, we want to meet up in real life to celebrate, maybe over a glass of wine.”

“It’s been a great way to compare local experiences,” Barford says. “We swap stories, recommend each other books. We’ve created a network to help each other. It’s so nice to have a sounding board away from the workplace, with people who understand your world but stand a step or two away.”

It’s so important as senior women, she says, to build cross-industry friendships based on respect and trust. “We’re not all big fans of networking. But it’s been so useful to build support from other areas of the water and environment industry, to share experiences.”

What happens now? Both Barford and Herlihy have applied things they’ve learned from the group at work. And all four are planning to stay in touch.

Maria Herlihy is operations manager for the Thames area, managing the waterways between Hurley and Teddington locks at the Environment Agency. Caroline Barford is coastal project engineer for Coastal Partners at Havant Borough Council

Vicky Eade and Katie Pearson

Katie Pearson put herself forward as a mentor, at the suggestion of her Aecom colleague Fay Bull, working with four Environment Agency mentees who wanted to better manage part-time work. She has worked part time for a decade.

Vicky Eade wanted to improve her work-life balance; having worked part time for 13 years, it wasn’t getting any easier. “I wanted to help others who are maybe newer to it,” she says.

“But I wanted to explore ways to achieve a better balance, even though my children are now older.

“I find the two days I’m supposedly not working much more exhausting than the three days I spend at my desk. Katie has been brilliant at pointing out that it’s not all about work and the kids – it’s also got to be about me.”

Pearson pressed her group to try different approaches, to take more risks. Whatever is discussed within the group has stayed within the group – and because everyone works in different agency divisions, those discussions were frank.

What they concluded, Pearson says, is that there’s no perfect work-life balance.

“We’ve all choked up at times, sharing our experiences,” Eade agrees. “As your children get older, you constantly reassess what you want. Some jobs may be incompatible with part-time work – something you only find out the hard way.

“My husband has moved to a nine day/four day shift pattern, which works much better for our family; it gives us time just to be us.”

All four still meet on Teams for coffee catch-ups every couple of months. “Women worry so much about how they’re perceived, especially against male colleagues,” Eade concludes. “But what matters is being confident that you’ve made the right decision for you. It doesn’t have to be about getting up the ladder.

“I want to use my brain, do good for the organisation and feel challenged by what I do. At different points, it may be worth getting off the ladder and trying something else. Feeling confident in your role is all that really matters.”

Katie Pearson is Aecom technical director for hydraulic modelling, water, ports and power. Vicky Eade is Fenland partnerships advisor for the Great Ouse Area

Ruchi Sayal and Katherine Grose

Katherine Grose approached WiFCERM looking for a mentor to support her career development as a part-time worker. Although her employer supports flexible working, she was struggling with feeling demanding for wanting a happy, fulfilled work life and a happy, fulfilled home life. “I needed support from like-minded people,” she says.

Ruchi Sayal has worked flexibly for the last four years and saw the call-out for mentors as a chance to expand her network of like-minded women. “I’ve had all the right support, but it can still be really hard,” she says. “You need to learn strategies to balance work and childcare.”

Grose and Sayal met once, then lockdown pushed their meetings to quarterly Zoom catch-ups, with regular contact in between. They also check in with the wider WIFCERM pilot group.

Each catch-up had agreed topics. “Ruchi is always very prepared,” Grose laughs.

“I like to have things structured,” Sayal says. “Everyone in the group needs to achieve what they expect from this. I focused on part-time working, to help everyone to open up and to share their personal experiences. And we really did talk about everything, in a way that became quite informal.”

“We definitely had homework,” Grose says. “And yes, my personal branding and elevator pitch is still a work in progress. We had challenges. Ruchi gave us the tools, and our job was to take these away and embed them. I’ve definitely got Ruchi in my head, sometimes, doing my day job.”

Being mentored has improved her time management, she says. “That, learning how to park feelings of guilt, how to prove to your boss that you deserve that bonus. We used 360˚ feedback to understand how my colleagues see me, and how I want to be seen at work. It’s about reputation versus what you do.”

Sayal says she has benefited too, from having extra support and a chance to compare experiences through lockdown. “We’ve all faced very similar challenges and have dealt with them in different ways. It’s definitely increased my self-confidence.”

Ruchi Sayal is senior flood-risk manager at Regional Enterprise, a joint venture between Capita and Barnet Council. Katherine Grose is a project manager for programme and contract management at the Environment Agency

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of The Environment.

Details of how to apply for the mentoring programme are available on the WiFCERM website.

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