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Mentoring: Lance and Matt

Winner of the Australian Water Association's Young Water Professional of the Year award, Matt Robertson has received a bit of attention lately. But the upstart is quick to mention that, although he has worked hard, his success is indebted to the guidance and support he received starting out. And while he enjoyed helping Matt find the right work, Lance says the youngster’s success is the real reward.

Mentor: Lance Stapleton

Program Manager Technical Solutions – CCR at TasWater

I first met Matt when he was in high school. I offered him a scholarship program through Southern Water, back before it became part of TasWater. From the very start, Matt wanted to get his hands dirty. In a business like ours, it’s easy to become desk bound, but it’s important to get out. You’ve got to understand what you’re designing and the problems you’re solving. Matt’s willingness to do that is just terrific.

Our first professional experience was when I managed him under my team during the scholarship program. Even when he was working in other departments, it was very important for me to make sure that his time at the company was interesting and challenging – that was the start of my relationship with Matt. But our mentoring relationship has evolved over the years.

"My main motivation for being a mentor is to see people succeed."

Lance Stapleton

My role changed from being Matt’s manager to being somebody he could come to for counsel. That relationship had no rank – there was no judgement. It was a genuine mentoring relationship and we could talk honestly about things.

One of the things Matt expressed concern about was being frustrated with how the business worked. In particular, Matt had been working on a little project on Bruny Island, and it was moving slowly. He wanted to get through the barriers holding up the project.

I helped Matt work through this by showing him that, when something is urgent – a real problem that needs to be solved quickly – you need to keep forward momentum, despite any hurdles. He now has quite a good understanding of what it means to actually build momentum, maintain momentum, and not stop the clock at every hurdle – to work through problems quickly.

Matt’s a terrific young engineer. He’s had broad exposure around the business; he’s seen and done a lot of things. He’s got down and dirty with a lot of our asset base; he’s crawled through filters and walked lines with surveyors. You can trust him with just about anything. He learns very quickly because he’s put in the effort to learn how to learn.

My main motivation for being a mentor is to see people succeed. The mentor’s role is to help the mentee succeed and create an environment for success. The real reward is seeing people you had a small role in supporting do well; I’d coached him from when he was a teenager and, all of a sudden, Matt was winning the AWA Young Water Professional of the Year award and presenting his work at Ozwater – he was being recognised on a national stage.

And I see his peers looking up to him as an expert and a leader. The role of the student is to overcome the teacher. The role of teacher is to let that happen. When you see people succeed and they succeed more than you, then you know you’ve done something positive.

Mentee: Matt Robertson

Engineer at TasWater

Our story goes back a couple of years now. I was finishing college and applying for university scholarships, and I ended up receiving the Steve Balcombe scholarship in engineering. Lance was my interviewer for the scholarship and my supervisor during my initial time at what was then Southern Water. The scholarship included work experience each summer throughout my university degree.

It came time to look for work during my final year at university, so I made my resume and I put it out there. I got a call from Lance asking if I’d be interested in working at TasWater.

I started my first role there with Lance as my manager. The whole mentoring thing happened naturally.

I came into the industry very fresh faced, bubbly and young. I had absolutely no business experience. I had no clue about the water industry, not even where water came from. Lance guided me through my first experience of working life: how it all works and why.

"Lance is always there for me if I have any questions, and he’s been looking out for me since the start."

Matt Robertson

But the thing Lance really helped me with was direction in terms of my career path. There was a point earlier on, about a year into my first position, where there was a bit of a shuffle going on in the company. I could have gone in a couple of different directions and was having a really hard time deciding if I wanted to leave my current role and go down a more technical path.

Lance really helped me form my own ideas in terms of where I wanted to go. He never said: “You should do this or that”, but guided me through the things I needed to consider. He gave me his two cents, which ultimately led me to where I am now, and I’m really grateful for that.

Lance gave me an opportunity in this industry, and then pulled me back into the industry again when I’d finished my studies. He is always there for me if I have any questions, and he’s been looking out for me since the start. His guidance was instrumental in helping me navigate my early career, as well as giving me the confidence to do it. He is brilliant; he’s really technically minded, but he also knows how to get stuff done and his communication skills are crazy good.

Any young professional entering into any industry should seek out a mentoring relationship. For young people being proactive and throwing themselves into things, work life is often completely different to anything they’ve experienced.

It is good to have someone there to help you through. It makes it less scary and it really helps. There’s no harm in it. From my experience, the people who want to mentor are more than happy to help out. Just go for it.

First published in Current magazine April 2019.

To get involved in the Australian Water Association’s mentoring program, contact your local branch.