Diversity is an important factor in how well an organization functions. From an infantry squad to a 30,000-person intelligence organization, it helps to have different points of view. Of course, group-think can still occur no matter how diverse your team is. But most likely your team will benefit from having people on it that grew up in different locations and cultures and were treated differently by society. Our current experiences in America should remind us how differently people are treated.
So how do you become the mentor that our country needs to ensure that every American gets the best chance to join our national security enterprise? While I don’t have any official certifications in mentoring, I have been practicing the art since I was a 20-year old acting infantry squad leader, and I can shed some light on the rules of mentoring.
Be helpful. When a young person or peer comes to you with questions, answer them honestly and concisely. Also listen to what they are asking and figure out why. You might discover that your organization’s culture is not answering some very important needs on a daily basis. You might learn from their questions that the person is thinking of leaving or should be marked for promotion. You don’t have to be a great leader to listen intently and try to answer their questions. You can reveal to them you are not a leader at all if you are too busy to listen to your team.
Look for the underserved. Many people in our society don’t think anyone is interested in mentoring them, or they think that they are being purposely ignored by their leaders. While that might or might not be reality in your organization, it is how some people think. Perceptions matter in mentorship and retention of talent. I realized this perception when I arrived in DC in 2011. As a mid-grade military leader in a mostly civilian organization, I decided to go on the offensive and start mentoring those who were missing from the senior levels of our organization. I ensured every minority I could reach in our organization felt like someone cared about their future.
Mentor everywhere. Mentorship doesn’t just take place at work. I liked to leave the office-space actually, so we could talk without everyone watching or listening. You want people to open up to you and feel comfortable. I mentored over coffee or other beverages, at lunch, breakfast, and dinner. I would take my people as a guest to Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) events, or even chat at sporting events. You can mentor anywhere it makes your team-mates comfortable. Be smart; ensure they feel comfortable. There are many people, men especially, that fear mentoring young folks due to heightened concerns about harassment issues in the workplace. You just need to be aware of the risks, read the room, and know that retaining all of your people is important. Bring a friend if need be.
Look outside your organization for talent. I attended a CFR conference by invitation one Friday evening in DC to be a CFR-member mentor to the young people they had gathered. It was special 2-day seminar for minorities from colleges across the country that were interested in national security and foreign affairs careers. They were some of the sharpest minds I had come across for their age in a while, and they purposely targeted some HBCUs. I came back the next day in dress military uniform to try to convince some of them to give Department of Defense civilian jobs a look. I don’t think I attracted one person to work for DoD, but I did end up mentoring, for 7 years now, plenty of bright kids who went into a wide array of careers. One is now at USAID, and another that is doing well in the music industry are pretty special folks. When I tried to get my 30,000-plus DoD organization interested in sending Human Resources recruiters to the conference the following year, they said they were too busy (they weren’t, trust me). That means if your larger organization doesn’t care about recruiting underserved young folks, you had better do it yourself.
Get involved in your organization’s equal opportunity committees, or start one if they don’t exist. I told my HR team I wanted to help out when they announced a program to find out why Hispanics and women were not reaching the highest rung of the ladder in our organization. Although I was neither of those things, I was a leader that cared about all people, so I wanted to get involved. It was very useful for me as a leader to help me understand the issues. One example of our work: the team revamped the family leave policy of the entire organization that one day allowed my good friend to take paternity leave to raise his child too. It leveled the playing-field for mothers, fathers, and those caring for elderly parents, and ill siblings and spouses. We found some flaws and repaired the culture to address them. That is what a small committee can do when empowered by the most senior leader, who was at that time a 3-star general and a great mentor.
Mentoring Changes the Corporate Landscape
If we want our national security teams to look like America, then we need to ensure we are reaching out to recruit from places often overlooked. We need to retain people that might not feel like they fit into the team, in order to help them belong. I recently left a job because I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel like they rewarded hard work or cared if I was there or not. If one person had tried to convince me otherwise, I would have stayed because I loved what I was doing.
So, if you love what you do and you are a leader in your organization, be a mentor. If you love your job, but don’t know if you fit-in, find a mentor. There’s always a reason to mentor someone else. The next generation of national security depends on it.