Have you ever gone for a walk with no particular destination in mind? For people in the military, this is close to an absurd question, but it is a useful starting point for a larger thought experiment. Military professionals are expected to be leaders and planners, so it seems unlikely that many of us would set out on a trail not knowing where it will lead or what we will find along the way. Consider the following metaphor for a moment.

The notion of a journey with an unspecified destination or route is less absurd that you may readily admit. In our military careers, it seems as though the majority of us have done this. Few people join the military with the initial plan of remaining for a career and we have little control over where we will be or what we will do along the way.

We leave the decision to stay beyond our initial commitment open-ended and (with good reason) we tell ourselves that we will leave when it stops being fun. We choose from the options offered to us at each junction, but the signs are poorly labeled.

After a few years or more, we have been walking down a path and we finally arrive at a professional crossroads at which we realize the need to arrive somewhere. Although we all have different priorities and destinations, we all want to get where we are going.

For the Airmen, Marines, and Soldiers reading, celestial navigation has been used for millennia by sailors (and land travelers, too) to navigate in open spaces of water where terrain association would not be possible. It’s not just following the North Star – there are many other known bodies that can serve as points of reference. Navigators take azimuths from various astronomical points overhead and plot their location and course on a map.

Mentoring networks work in this same way. By looking up to many known points for wisdom, we can be more precise and more efficient navigators. Just like terrain features along your route, all of your mentors have a close relationship with your career trajectory. However, each mentor has their own unique perspective to offer. Having a single mentor is akin to dead reckoning or just following the North Star. Even though a mentor remains with you for a long duration, they only offer you a single perspective.

An alternative to this is the personal board of directors or mentor constellation. It is your own network of advisors. To build a network, you do need to do a bit of networking. Contrary to popular belief, networking isn’t about who you know; it’s about who knows what you know.

Some readers may see networking as a dirty word which smells of patronage and favoritism. Yes, mentoring can be misunderstood as patronage, but the other side of the coin is a network of more experienced leaders who understand your unique talents and who can help you be the best version of you based on their own experiences and mistakes. They can be your guiding constellation.

How to Build a Network of Mentors

  1. Seek diverse perspectives. Navigating by constellations gives you multiple points of reference whereas simply using a single point like the North Star just gives you a direction. Seek out mentors from the various career paths that you’re considering for the future. Maintain connections with people outside of your current specialty. These perspectives are invaluable to helping you be the best version of you. They see your talents, not just the boxes that you need to check on your current path.
  2. Ask for advice, not a favor. Mentors serve as guides who can show you their path and the choices and mistakes that they made along the way. They can show where you are currently and how to get where you’re going. Checking your career azimuth is as simple as asking for advice or insight. What choices did they make? What would they encourage you to do? These sorts of questions open up new opportunities that you would not have even known to ask for – and that’s even better.
  3. Check your progress regularly. Navigating a long distance requires frequent checks along the way, and your career should be no different. Walking or sailing a long distance at the wrong azimuth can make for difficult course corrections and there is nothing more dangerous than getting into a career track that isn’t a good fit for you. You don’t have to follow-up with each of your mentors on the same timeline, but keeping a regular interval is the best method.

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