“Continue westward through the forest and keep the lake on your right. As you arrive at the far side of the lake, look up to the ridge and find the saddle which you will need to cross over to reach the next valley. The hike up is steep and strenuous, but the path is well-worn.”

When Chevy and I founded Military Mentors, we were both on active duty and planning to spend our careers devoted to professional development. In some ways, that changed when I recently left active duty. So, what happens when your own journey changes course? What happens when you truly bushwhack? In the military, people can change specialties, branches, or even services. In my case, how does my role as mentor and protégé change now that I’m off of active duty?

My transition over last few months has actually been a smooth process. I was fortunate – I had a great job with Amazon lined-up well before my ETS date. Although I was spared the stress of trying to find a job under a tight deadline, figuring out what I wanted to do wasn’t exactly easy and I’ve come to appreciate mentors even more than ever.

Civilian mentors

Mentoring could arguably be more important outside the military because finding one’s way is seemingly harder. There are infinite career paths, so there is no official publication to layout your entire career on a single page. The military’s “one-size-fits-all” style of talent management doesn’t have many bright spots, but simplicity is surely one. While people in the military are forced to accept the limited options of a centralized human resources system (often by the saying “it is what it is”), that rule doesn’t apply elsewhere.

As we’ve discussed previously, mentoring leads to a more fulfilling work life and top companies know this. Amazon is roughly the size of the active-duty Air Force and therefore larger than the Navy or Marine Corps. Amazon has a robust internal mentoring program – an online tool for finding mentors, local social opportunities for connections, internal job fairs, networking events, and other resources. All of this is voluntary, but there is consistent support for the programs, especially among the veteran network (note: In this case, voluntary isn’t code for “mandatory”).

Within my new role, I’m developing three circles of mentors: traditional senior mentors, peer mentors, and a broader constellation of ties. We’ve discussed the value of the first two groups extensively in past posts. In the military, there are fewer obvious examples of peer mentors, but as a veteran who left service at 11 years, I have plenty of peers who are much further ahead in their professional transition. They have been invaluable over the last year. Connecting with people outside of your team and immediate network creates opportunity for new learning which, when paired with appropriate reflection, also means growth.

Continuing to mentor in the military

The relationships forged during my time as a company commander are still strong. I’m still close with my former platoon leaders and my battalion commander. I’m also close to an exceptional lieutenant who was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters during my last year in the Army. Most these friends are still serving in uniform, but for the one who isn’t, I’m helping him to navigate his own transition and professional growth after the military.

For the lieutenants, Brad and Josh, my departure for the military has not diminished the advice that I can give them and has only expanded my aperture of how I see the world. As they move into new roles and prepare to become company commanders, I can speak to them with the same experience as any other senior Captain, but with experience from completely different arenas which may be more effective.

Everyone Works; Everyone Eats

It’s easy to understand why anyone in a new career would want to knuckle down for the first year. There’s much to learn and first impressions are limited. But my experience over just this short time has validated my belief that face time in the office isn’t what matters.

Don’t be competitively busy – learn. The important stuff often happens outside the office (and often outside of your own team). In the modern era, being good at what you do is not enough to be successful. And in this regard, mentoring and networking go hand in hand: “it’s not who you know, it’s who knows what you know.” Connecting for meals and coffee is a staple of the civilian professional and seems to be lacking even more when I look back on my time in the military.

Even if the person or people across from you aren’t technically your mentors, they could be – or you could be one for them. One thing that happens far too often in both civilian and military organizations is that we spend all of our time focused on the tyranny of the daily – staying late for trivial minutia – when we are better served making people the top priority. Get out of your office, never eat alone, and start a conversation… you just might spark a transformation.

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