Back when I used to work for him, my mentor and I used to get into some very heated arguments about work. One conversation in particular stemmed from the umpteenth time the Brigade Command Sergeant Major saw me rucking in the wrong uniform.
I was just poking my head in to give him an update: “Hey, sir, everything is good with the lateral transfers. They will be done today and the PBO is tracking the urgency, so the paperwork will be processed today, too.”
“Great to hear. Hang on for a second. I need to talk to you about something,” he replied. “So, I just got a nasty-gram from the Brigade XO about you.”
“Here we go,” I sighed.
“Yeah, here we go,” he retorted. “What the hell, man? Why is this even a problem?”
“Sir, it’s friggin’ cold at 5am in Germany in November,” I said, pushing back. “I put on a PT cap when I started rucking and I didn’t think to put my patrol cap in my pocket. This is just completely dumb though. It’s not like I don’t know the policy, but they don’t wear kevlars at SFAS (Special Forces Assessment and Selection), so ‘train like you fight’ is exactly what I’m doing.”
“I’m not talking about you wearing a PT cap, but yeah, that’s a stupid thing for you to do,” he said as he got up to close the door in order to keep the conversation within the confines of his office. Clarifying, he said “The note I got was about you rucking on Saturday in a patrol cap.”
“Good lord! This is friggin’ ridiculous!” I replied exasperated. “I’m training during my personal time and I’m wearing a complete uniform and someone is mad because they drove by me while I was rucking in ACUs and I wasn’t wearing a helmet?! On the weekend?!”
“I hear you, Ranger, but your arguing with me about it isn’t solving anything.” Pushing back at me, he said, “That’s the order that we’ve got. I’m all ears if you’ve got an idea to work around this, but you can’t keep doing this…”
Before he was even finished, I’d have my next response ready: “This is…”
We’d do this dance at least once a week. The topics changed, but it was always the same. It would go on for a half hour or so until we’d get tired or have to get back to work and calmer heads would prevail. Eventually, one of us would have to concede, the door would open, and the discussion would be over.
Although the previous example is entertaining, it might not have been the most illustrative one. The point of this example is not to show my fight for common sense; it’s to show that he respected me, he listened, and he explained. If he were different, there would have been no discussion, just orders. Instead, he engaged me and heard me out (at great length) and would show me the other side that I wasn’t seeing. In return, he had my commitment to follow-through on the final decisions.
As the dialogue shows, I wasn’t perfect (and neither was he). I was immature and he occasionally came down to my level to spar. Neither of us was smart enough to solve the world’s problems, and even if I had convinced him in that case, it wouldn’t have changed much. But simply by having the conversation with me, he gave me the insight and perspective that I needed in order to learn and he trusted me to voice dissent respectfully.
After more than three years in service, he was the first boss that I had who provided me with this opportunity and I have always remembered it. It was an incredibly valuable experience for me. Again, he wasn’t perfect, but he showed me many of the things that I hope to be as a mentor for others – especially as a future field grade officer on staff.
Our relationship was unique. Everyone else on staff did not have that same leeway and I can now articulate more clearly why. The science behind mentoring shows that good mentors and good protégés find a balance of trust and respect that grows stronger when both show their commitment to growth. Just like any other personal relationship, this is built on reciprocal investments in each other. Make a small bet, let it grow, then reinvest.
When he and I first met, I’m sure that he noticed my (unsolicited) candor. He was a Major and I was a brand new Captain, so I was absolutely respectful. In private, he would allow me to speak candidly and he would listen to me with an open mind. He didn’t claim to know everything, but he shared everything that he knew. We each appreciated the honesty and trust that the other offered. These discussions were a critical part of what led to the strong relationship that we now enjoy.
Nowadays, we still talk, but it never gets as animated as it used to – we just email, text, or talk on the phone. The last time we spoke, he was watching his son play football, but we chatted about my future career (and his) while he watched the game. It’s great to have someone that I can go to for advice and wisdom.
Sadly, I know that there was a good amount of luck that contributed to our relationship, too. My experiences would have been manifestly different based on a single random change and this is heartbreaking. I had a terrible relationship with the other Major in the battalion and I know that all but one of the officers who worked for him are now out of the Army. Who else was a potential candidate for the role of Battalion XO? Moreover, why would we create a system with only two options? Why not 20?
Professions shouldn’t leave these things to chance. Luck shouldn’t play a role in professional development. People who want it and need it shouldn’t be constrained to the few random options available to them in their unit and immediate chain of command. This is why we created Military Mentors.
Military Mentors is a social network that connects military professionals to each other and to the resources that they need for professional development. Military Mentors helps you start these conversations by connecting you to the people who are ready to invest and improve. We help remove the randomness and create new opportunities – instead of making you wait years for someone new to get assigned to your unit.
The New Year is all about starting new habits and creating new connections. Start creating new connections now. At Military Mentors, our vision is for you to ‘Start a conversation.’ It just might ‘Spark a transformation’ within you or someone else. I was incredibly fortunate to have had a few good mentors, and we simply want the same for you.