OTM 10: How to become a professional food safety mentor


The pinnacle of our food safety professional ‘levels of mastery’ is becoming a food safety mentor.  In Episode 10 of “Off the Menu”, tune in to find out what a professional food safety mentor is, building personal attributes and how to become a food safety mentor. Peter and I also chat about HACCP Mentors new group membership that you can access for free.

Episode 9 Highlights

Podcast Transcription

Here is a transcript of what we spoke about in this episode.  Both Pete and I have a lot of fun talking together so if there is anything in the transcript that doesn't make sense, listening to the actual podcast may put the words into context. 

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Amanda:  Welcome to episode 10 of Off The Menu. I'm here with my trusty colleague, Peter Holtmann. And today we are going to get into the topic of mentoring. Hi, Pete.

Peter:  Hello. How are you?

Amanda:  I'm good. How are you surviving?

Peter:  I'm doing all right. I didn't win the $50 million lotto last night, so I'm well things considered.

Amanda:  So you've had to show up and do this podcast today then.

Peter:  Yeah, this was the last ditch resort.

What is a Mentor?

Amanda:  All right, what we're getting into today, we've been covering all the different levels of mastery as we go through our career as food safety professionals, and we're at our last level which is becoming a mentor. So would you like to inform me and the listeners what is a mentor?

Peter:  I will. Let me start by saying what it is not first. So it is not a counsellor, it's not a psychologist, it's not a therapist which a lot of people tend to come and try and use that relationship to do those things. It's not even a coach. And I want to explain quite clearly what the difference between mentoring and coaching is.

Amanda:  Yes, I'd like to know that, because you've confused me straight up.

Peter:  Well, there we go. Let's resolve that right now.

Amanda:  I thought I was getting a therapy session.

Peter:  It may end up like that by the end of the session.

Amanda:  Just let me lay down.

Peter:  Yeah, we both might need to book in for this. Coaching is where you're trying to work on some personal or performance goals and it's the coach's job to ask you questions that you have to answer and explore the answer and trial the solution from there. So that's the flow of the conversation. You talk to the coach, the coach then provides you meaningful questions to either answer there or answer later, and then implement that into your personal goals. That's that flow.

Amanda:  So that sounds like a mentor to me, how's that differ from being a mentor?

How is Coaching different to Mentoring?

Peter:  Well, let me explain to you. So a mentor is someone who has a high degree of technical capability and competence, so they're in the expert range of competency set. And they have a lot of solutions for you, and you would generally rock up to your mentor and you'd be asking them a lot of questions about how do I do this, how do I solve that, what happens when this happens, do you think I should be doing these things. And the mentor would be giving you solutions.

So the conversation might go, "I want to be able to improve a process point to get better efficiency out of a machine. Have you got any suggestions for me?" And the mentor might say, "Well, I've seen three different types of machines run on a similar process over time, and by adjusting the machine to these parameters you'll get a higher throughput and then you'll get greater productivity from that point." "Thank you. I'll go and implement that and I'll let you know how it goes." End of mentoring session.

What is a Coach?

Amanda:  Right. So if I go back on this definition of a coach then you're saying that it's different, when I see a coach I probably think about it in the more traditional like athletics or sport or something like that where a coach is there to guide you and improve your technique through showing you this is a better way to do it. So how does that differ then from what you've just said around being a food safety mentor?

Peter:  Well, that's interesting, because business coaches fundamentally started from being sporting coaches as well. And there was the mechanics around how to be a better sports person through the technique that's being deployed. What they quickly came to the realization was that the mental state is the most effective way of developing a professional athlete to perform better or to outperform competitors. And so in order to do that you can't tell someone, "You have to think like this, you have to think like that." So they're leaving them with the question to develop.

So you're right that business coaches definitely came from the sporting arena and there's lots of texts and books out there that talk to about what they really found was that it's the development of the behavioural attributes and the mental capacity that really made the difference.

Sharing knowledge and experience

Amanda:  Okay, so we're saying that really the mentor and this is level five of these levels of food safety professional mastery that we were looking at as kind of like the last level, so if that person's really there ... See, this is the other area that I've got confused on is that I thought in this context a mentor is really about passing on your knowledge and experience to those who are not at the same level but also sharing experiences so that other person doesn't have to make the mistakes that you've made and then you can get quicker to whatever the goal is you're trying to achieve.

Peter:  Your description of mentoring is very accurate, and that's probably someone who's reached mastery level, who has identified problems before you have, who's implemented various solutions and has found the most efficient solution and is prepared to share that with you.

Amanda:  So what do you see ... I know you've done the mentoring courses, you've become a professional mentor or coach.

Peter:  I've done both.

The benefits of having a Food Safety Mentor

Amanda:  You've done both, okay. If I was just starting out in the industry, what would be the benefit to me looking to get a food safety mentor or have somebody mentoring me?

Peter:  So a mentor is someone that helps you identify problem-solving skills and builds your decision-making capabilities, because as you become more proficient in your job and more competent you'll be relied upon to make more important decisions and solve far more complex problems. And those two skill sets, not independently, but they're definitely two really important skill sets that make you stand out amongst other people is you build the confidence in others that see your ability to do those two things, and that solve problems and make decisions.

Amanda:  Does a mentor then have to be there in person with you? Is it all around face-to-face contact and having those conversations or is there other ways that you can get that mentoring? Because I know traditionally you might go along to like a one-on-one meeting or something like that and have the mentoring like that. Is there other ways that you can be mentored?

Peter:  Yeah, I don't think it's necessary all of the time to be face-to-face with the person. And you might have mentors that provide you different outcomes because of their skill sets and their strengths as well. You might want someone that's very technically-focused for a certain project and they're mentoring you through the design, development and delivery of a project. That's their skill set, that's what you want them for. And so you might meet with them frequently during the design and the setup of the project and might meet with them remotely during the delivery phase. And then your relationship with that mentor will probably finish at that particular point in time.

Then you might want someone that is helping you design the strategy for your business going forward. That might be a longer relationship and that might be a different set of conversations that, again, don't necessarily need to happen face-to-face, they can be remote just like what you and I are doing now. Or it could even be through a series of questions and answers like project-based work that can occur as well.

Learning through group mentoring sessions

Amanda:  When I started out in business 20 years ago I joined up to like a women in business mentoring group, and through that organization ... it was run by the state government in New South Wales, and through that, all that arrangement, we would meet every week and there would be like group sessions where they would be using teaching or facilitation as a way of giving you more information on how to start a business. And then I was assigned one individual lady who became my individual mentor who then I could talk to about if I was having problems and what I didn't understand, and her role was really helping clarify around my business goals and starting my business and all of that type of stuff.

So there was a real mix of learning in that group situation, the one-on-one, plus also learning off other people within the group. So I found that really useful especially in those early days. And look, I find it interesting and useful even now at this point, we probably don't have it so structured as a mentoring kind of scenario, but I will talk to you about certain things, we've been friends for a long time, but we're still talking about business development and how to make things better in our business.

I do the same with other food safety consultants where we have these conversations if we're having an issue or we just need to talk something out with someone else, so it's probably more going around ... that's probably more a mastermind group where you're still using each other's experience to help you deal with a problem or to get to the outcome that you're trying to achieve. Do you think in that context it's still viable to consider that to be mentoring?

Peter:  Look, I think so. There's definitely much like with coaching there's group sessions, and that is relying on the interaction of multiple people to discuss and solve a similar problem or a similar group of problems that you all might be experiencing. And so I think what you're saying is that you would turn up, you'd rock up to a group and you'd sit down and you might start a conversation saying, "Oh, I've got this problem with my business at the moment. I can't seem to get more subscribers to one of my podcasts." And someone else in the room would pop up and say, "Yeah, I've got the same thing." And so together you're discussing it, you're brainstorming it, you're talking about alternative solutions.

And at the end of the day you all may leave with a similar understanding of how to approach the problem, but you won't all necessarily approach it in the same way. So that's a form of mentoring where a problem has been presented and multiple solutions have been given.

And when you're working one-to-one with a food safety mentor your problem sets are usually much narrower and the content is more focused or discreet. In other words, you're trying to solve a problem at a time versus several problems at once.

Collaborating and sharing ideas

So group mentoring is a great way of collaborating, sharing ideas, but together you're solving problems and that's what it's all about. It's how do you problem solve and become better at it. And also communicate problems and solutions as well. So I think that's one of the benefits of mentoring there is one being a better communicator on problem and solution and also teaching you how to appreciate other points of view and other opinions as well. In coaching parlance we call that appreciative inquiry, and that teaches you to open your mind up in a positive manner to other input even though it won't necessarily agree with your own path, you're becoming quite open to other opinions.

Amanda:  Other opinions, yeah. The other thing that I see there are quite a few food safety forums around on the internet where as a food safety professional or if you're just getting started out or even if you are more experienced of any of those other four levels that we've spoken about previously, you can go into these forums and ask question and get multiple responses back, which is kind of like an informal mentoring I suppose to a degree. There's not too much structure around it because it just relies on someone asking a question and then others answering that question. Do you see that type of format as being fitting into the definition of mentoring?

Informal approaches to Mentoring

Peter:  Well, I guess in that sense we could relate it back to what we were just talking about in terms of formal and informal approaches to mentoring. What you've just described there, which is I've jumped on a chat room for a particular industry group and said, "Hey, this product doesn't come out the end of the machine. What do I do?" And you'll get 15 different opinions up there and then 32 haters and then some trolls following you thereafter and then some people trolling the trolls. And before you know it you've got all of this convoluted content.

I'd call that an informal session, but what it doesn't expressly do is deliver you an outcome. You then have to accumulate and synthesize all of the commentary that's there and then still have to make a decision on which solution is going to solve your problem. So that's a much more informal process. And I wouldn't say it's the most effective way. What it might do is provide you a very rapid response with multiple outcomes to your problem because a lot of people can't wait for anything these days.

So I'd say that's an informal way at getting multiple responses that you still have to synthesize, whereas a formal approach being I guess one to one or one to few, your issue is being addressed in a more considered manner.

Amanda:  Talking about those couple of different delivery mechanisms, what do you think makes a food safety good mentor? Have you ever had a mentor?

What makes a good Mentor?

Peter:  I have had a mentor and I've asked people to be mentor for me over the years as well, and I've also had coaches, I've paid for the privilege of having a coach as well, paid quite a lot of money actually, coaches, particularly in-demand coaches can attract a handsome fee. But I've sought people out to be a mentor over the years, and so what was it about them that I wanted from them? The first thing I wanted from them is that they're approachable, that they're going to be available and accessible and open to the idea of discussing problems with me, that they're not going to be guarded about their information that they hold. So that's really important that these people are accessible and available to you.

And that they're willing to share insights and information with you. That's probably number one and key, because it's about trust, right? You're going to someone with a problem that you have no matter what it might be, and that immediately puts you in a less powerful position, because you're going to someone who has a solution, you have a problem, therefore they control in essence the outcome of the conversation. So you're in a less powerful position. So it's about building trust. So that person then has to have enough emotional intelligence and humility about them to recognize that that's the power they hold in the conversation and dilute it or disperse it or eliminate it completely from the conversation.

So I want someone that is approachable and is humble in how they talk to you as well, not talking down to you, not condescending to you, not showing you how much they know, that they're willing to work one-to-one with you.

Let me give you an example. I was on a phone call to a funding or to a governance body last night who was representing some very large funders, and we're talking billions here, where I'm helping someone at the moment achieve multiple billion dollar funding for a project in Africa. We have to go through this governance peak body who has to approve our project in order to get access to the funder and the money. This person rather than problem solving, our prospectus that we put through spent three and a half hours lecturing us on why we aren't meeting the cut and how much that person knew. So that's useless, that's not a mentoring session in any way, shape or form. That's someone talking at you, not talking with you.

So a good mentor can listen, can share information and can be sympathetic or sensitive to your particular situation and be accessible for you when you need them. That's a good mentor.

Building the personal attributes to be a good Mentor

Amanda: So we're starting to now build on all of those other personal attributes that we've come across or that we've developed through those other four levels. We're starting to feel say a lot more aware, a lot more sympathetic, empathetic.

Peter:  Empathetic, yeah.

Amanda:  Communication is still key as you've said before. It's good to see now that we're going through these levels we are building more and more attributes that really we wouldn't have had at the beginner level or the advanced beginner or even at that expert level.

Peter:  Yeah, that's right. And as I said before, how coaching had evolved from just the mechanical process of playing sport to the mental process of playing sport is people became acutely aware how important it is to synchronize with another person's mental state and how to build a more positive mental state. The same thing with mentoring, you need to be acutely aware of what the mental state is or the person that's coming to you - are they exasperated that they can't solve the problem, are they depressed, are they angry about it, are they positive, are they actively looking forward to the session? And then how do you recognize that and use that to give a really good outcome from a mentoring session with somebody which leaves them feeling engaged, positive, energized and focused on solving a problem.

Amanda:  So now we're starting to get into a little bit of psychology, Peter. And I don't want to have to get my Medicare card out because that's what it sounds like.

Peter:  The end of it, sure, yeah.

How to become a Mentor

Amanda: It's got some therapy going on. If somebody wants to become a mentor how would they go about that process? Because currently I'm a mentor as part of the Australian Institute of Food Science Technology group. So I have a mentee at the moment. And it's quite a structured program, we have certain things that we go through in each of our sessions that's already been pre-established, it's a set amount of time for the entire program so it's not dragging out for two years or whatever, so it is a set program. For me, I have found that quite beneficial as a food safety mentor to have that structure around, "Okay, this is what we're going to achieve in each of the sessions."

Peter:  Well, you're a very structured person, Amanda.

Amanda:  I am very structured, yes. But for other people who are located internationally, what is the best way for them to get into becoming a mentor?

Peter: Sure, so I know of a number of different online courses that people could take to become aware of what mentoring is. And as you said, you're part of an institute that offers mentoring, that would be another way of accessing a mentor credentialing process and that would have certain requirements that they want you to meet, usually be number of years of experience, a professional conduct or a code of conduct that you need to follow including confidentiality. And then they'd want to understand some of your own experiences around being a mentor or being mentored previously as well.

So I think that a way to start to check are you going to be good mentor is probably look to your personal qualities, and there's plenty of behavioural or attribute or personality assessments out there that can help you with that. I definitely offer a number of tools that work in that space.

Amanda:  So we'll put a link to those in the transcript to this podcast as well.

Peter:  Yep, so definitely on the personal attribute side of things. And then it's probably about you being able to recognize where your experiences are and where is your greatest strength in those experiences, so what do you know more about and what are you capable of delivering to somebody? Because an institute, when you went through the institute did they pick you out for a particular type of mentee and a particular track of mentoring, is that how it worked for you?

Matching Mentors with Mentees

Amanda:  I'm not sure if we were like matched per se, I think it was just a matter of we need X mentors, we've got X mentees, and we were just put together like that. I suppose from a track perspective there wasn't anything around, "Okay, well, I've got X experience say in the dairy industry so I'm going to have somebody mentee in the dairy industry."

The person who I have as my mentee at the moment the first goal was to get a job, post-qualification or post-university. I'm happy to say that he started a new job last week, so hopefully that's all going fine. We definitely have a structured thing, as I said before, that we meet every two weeks and we jump on the Zoom, because we are in different locations. It is quite structured, but as far as I know there was no DNA matching type thing going on.

Peter:  There might be something behind the scenes that you're not aware of, but they generally like to match mentors and mentees based on it could be some sort of demographic, it could be based on your gender, it could be based on years of experience, it could be based on your industry experience or all of the above. There's usually some matching regime that happens in the background and then where you're best suited with these people.

Amanda:  Well, when I had ... when I did that women in business mentoring course or that program I was matched obviously with somebody who lived in my location, and it was definitely a woman because you need a woman to understand what a woman goes through. But in saying that, we still had males come in and give their perspective on certain things, but that was probably more about let's call it the free range learning of how to do XYZ as opposed to that one-on-one mentoring.

Peter:  Okay, yeah. It's a common practice to match mentors and mentees to ensure that the best outcome is achieved.

Amanda:  So that probably wraps up what we needed to talk about mentoring. If you are interested in learning more about being a mentor, we're going to have links in the bottom ... at the bottom of this podcast on the HACCP Mentor website.

Get more information

Also if you are interested in becoming a mentee we'll also list a few different organizations there that you can check out and see if you can join their mentoring programs if you feel that you want something a little bit more formal outside of the free range learning stuff and group forums.

HACCP Mentor is putting together a new group forum style access on the website, there will be specialized groups in which to really focus, as Pete said, we want to try and achieve an outcome specific to a particular problem, so it won't be just random, it'd be quite directed. If you're interested in that, check that out on the website as well.

Peter:  Well, that sounds exciting.

Amanda:  It's very exciting, Peter, it's very exciting.

Peter:  Well, you are a master in your area so why not start sharing that.

Amanda:  Well, I have been doing that for a while through HACCP Mentor but not in a formal manner, it's been more through sharing through blog posts and training and things like that.

Final Thoughts

So to wrap it up, your last thoughts on mentoring, Pete.

Peter:  Go get one.

Amanda:  Do you want to expand a bit more?

Peter:  Go get one today. I think mentoring is a really useful tool for anyone who is trying to develop their career path. It can help accelerate your career path by teaching you new ways of thinking around problems and helping you make decisions and being aware of how your actions impact others. And those three areas are what make you stand out in the crowd when managers are seeking people to promote, to place into new roles, to provide new challenges. And I think a lot of people like that as challenges for their own career path and their own personal development anyway, so it's a worthy pursuit to find yourself a mentor.

Amanda:  Well, thank you very much again, Peter. That's been episode 10 of Off The Menu. And we will join you in the next one.

Peter: We'll do. See you then.

About Off the Menu

In the first season of Off the Menu, Amanda Evans-Lara and Peter Holtmann dive into career development for newbies and professionals working in the food industry. Listen in to learn about the skills, knowledge, personal attributes and work experience needed to map your food industry career path.

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