This week’s blog post comes from Michelle Arias. She is currently the Deputy Director for the Department of State’s Bureau of Human Resources Office of Recruitment, Examination & Employment. She works with the Office Director in the formulation and implementation of plans and policies necessary to carry out the Department’s mission to recruit and hire a diverse and talented workforce. Ms. Arias began her public service career in 1996 as a civilian with the U.S. Army South in Panama and subsequently served nine years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) both stateside and overseas. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Louisiana State University.
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For many years we’ve been taught that good leaders are constantly engaged in mentoring. It is an important component of building and nurturing your organization and workforce. What we’ve been told is true and plays a key role in organizational planning. The great thing about mentoring is that you learn from it too. We need to think of mentoring as a collaborative act where the mentor and mentee roles are sometimes reversed. You cannot mentor without a willingness to learn as well.
Mentoring is not easy. It is not for the faint of heart but for those who truly want to commit the time and energy to help the person sitting beside you. When I first started mentoring, I sat with mentees and asked them what they aspired to do and who they aspired to be. Some were quiet while they thought of an appropriate response. I could almost see their brains churning upon “what do I say to a senior leader?” They sometimes appeared perplexed by my questions. Our conversations usually centered on the telling of my story and then the mentee would ask questions that might help him or her follow that path too. We’d chat for a bit and I would give them a few suggestions based on their stated interests and off they would go. As I look back on those sessions I wonder if I was really much help at all. Luckily, it did not take long before I understood that there was more to mentoring.
I’ve thought about all of the great mentors I had over the years. I am truly thankful for them, so I reflected on what made them so great. This is what I found: they were frank with me about my strengths but mostly about my weaknesses; they took the time to be critical; they took a red pen to my resume till it looked like horror movie; they were honest and they put in the time. I was a willing Eliza Doolittle and they were enthusiastic Professor Higgins’. Good mentors aren’t there to flatter us, they are there to help us get to the next level. A good mentor is a person of action. They are actively engaged in your success. Sometimes that means telling us what we need to hear not what we want to hear. We should all be thankful for their ability to show us this perspective.
The first time one of my mentors shredded my resume with a red pen it was catastrophic! I walked into his office with my resume in hand, so very proud of myself. I smiled smugly as I handed it off. I knew he would be impressed with my ability and would think of me as the next best thing. Boy, did I have an overinflated sense of self! When I came back for it a few days later, he smiled gently and said, “I think if you work on these suggested changes, it will be much stronger”. Holy Toledo! I could barely see the words on paper through all the red ink! I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I looked up from the paper crestfallen and thankfully saw that he was already working on something else. I thanked him and walked out with my resume and broken heart in hand. And then I got to work and made it better. Second round had a lot less red ink. He taught me a couple of important lessons: be humble and open when you ask for feedback and good leaders take the time to be constructively critical. Because he took the time to edit my resume, I landed my dream job. Years later and with a typically packed schedule, I appreciate more than ever the fact that he red inked my resume and that I need to do the same for those I mentor. Feedback stings but without it, we can’t improve. And good leaders understand that basic concept.
I typically have at least one mentoring session in my office per week. They are the highlight of my day every time. I still share my path but now I focus more on helping them figure out their path and how any number of steps can lead them to success. I’m thankful of the opportunity to help them get where they want to be, just as the same was done for me.