By Mr N. Wike, U.S Army
The time has come to take the next step in your career. Behind you lies a string of accomplishments and a legacy that would be the envy of any leader (or not). In front of you the destination is clearly visible in the distance. But the road ahead is narrow, winding, and shrouded in uncertainty. Courageously you step off into the unknown, walking the path of your future where you have never tread before. You have an idea of where you want to go. You have a road map and maybe you have taken a swing at planning the trip yourself. But do you have a guide? Do you have a mentor?
Sometimes the answer is an emphatic NO, or worse, the more ambiguous NOT REALLY. It’s not your fault, just a condition of the circumstances you find yourself in. Perhaps your primary sounding board has moved on to another post. Maybe their new job keeps them from staying in touch, and they are not the sort who reaches out. Or you may have taken the near-heretical step of switching branches, leaving the service, or choosing the Harvard Strategist Program over a berth with Project Warrior. You feel lost, uncertain, and alone. So what are you going to do about it?
Self-pity is a backwards step on the road to the future. Focus instead on self-development and actively seeking a mentor are positive steps that will jump start your journey.
If the answer is to sulk and drag your feet, then it could be that no amount of mentoring can get you to where you want to go. How many qualified leaders simply give up and either A) get out of the military spouting anti-service rhetoric, or B) stay in simply for the pay all the while filling a valuable Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE) slot and taking no action to improve themselves or the organization? The first thing to do is make a decision to not be like so many who have squandered their potential in an endless cycle of melancholy. Self-pity is a backwards step on the road to the future. Focus instead on self-development and actively seeking a mentor are positive steps that will jump start your journey.
You do not know what you do not know, but there are resources to help light the way—start reading. Reading will sharpen your mind and prepare you for almost anything. The resources for reading in the digital age are truly tremendous. Ideas on what to read can come from an all-encompassing source, such as the Chief of Staff’s reading list or from a more focused venue such as the Basic Strategic Arts Program’s reading list, or a series on a particular part of history. Then of course there are the ever applicable doctrinal and conceptual publications that many claim to read but few follow through with. If all that is too much, there is always the option to read something relevant once a week that would still put you ahead. Pick works that are relevant to your profession and your career desires, and maybe a few works purely for pleasure, and plow in with gusto.
Writing is a way to record your personal experiences and leave a record of your thoughts and emotions on a variety of topics while practicing a craft of vital importance. To write, you simply have to sit down at a keyboard or pick up paper and pen. Do not hesitate to seek out ways to put your writing out there for review and critique by society. Medium.com is, of course, a great place to self-publish and invite the feedback of others. Forums such as the Military Writer’s Guild or the Veteran’s Writing Project are terrific ways to have your writing assessed, critiqued, and presented in a low-threat environment. Some avenues for professional publication with a strong potential for professional feedback and notice are Armed Forces Journal or your service magazine. There are numerous writing competitions to choose from, such as the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center or U.S. Naval Institute’s annual writing competitions, where you can possibly be published in a professional journal and earn a little extra cash. Regardless of your venue, be sure to edit your writing, and invite others to assist?—learn your weaknesses and polish your technique. It matters not however if your writing is never published? — The sheer act of writing is itself a panacea.
Seek a mentor in unorthodox ways. Learn to reach out to others? —sometimes the best advice comes from someone you interact with everyday but have never looked to for guidance. Go to lunch with people in your office. Host a low-key gathering at your home or at a popular watering hole. Invite your friends, but do not hesitate to invite acquaintances or more experienced individuals you do not know personally. A mentor does not have to be your supervisor, or someone you once worked for. It can easily be a subordinate or peer who has their own unique insight and experiences. Mentorship should transcend professional boundaries. Do not waste the opportunity to pick the brain of the sergeant major with 25 years of experience, or the specialist with a master’s degree. Even if they do not have direct knowledge of your career path, they can provide unique perspectives that will enrich your own journey.
A mentor does not even have to be someone you have met in person. Just as the internet is an invaluable tool for reading and writing, it is infinitely useful for reaching out to others. Believe it or not, you can connect with someone on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Scrub your profile(s), make sure it is professional and an embodiment of the image you want to present to the world. Keep your service records, résumé, and curriculum vitae up to date and ready to present. If you are intimidated about reaching out, ask others to assist you. The military is a small place and odds are you know someone who knows someone who can make an introduction. You may not hear back right away because exceptional mentors are usually exceptional workers and leaders, and are likely very busy. But do not be discouraged, the best mentors realize that part of their duty is to be good stewards of the profession. If you take the time to reach out to them, they will respond to you in kind.
As you seek and find your mentor(s) do not be so focused on yourself that you neglect opportunities to mentor others. Like someone who grew up never knowing a parent and vows to be a better parent themselves, you can be a better mentor to others. There are subordinates and peers who maybe in the same situation as you? — full of talent but lacking a direction or facing a new career path all alone. Reach out to them, foster their growth, encourage their self-development. You will be surprised how much you learn yourself from being a mentor.
As you take the next step in your career, do not be discouraged if you lack a mentor. It is a temporary malady if you wish it to be so. Use the time for reflection, self-improvement, and increasing your value to your profession. Reach out to likely mentors? — The worst anyone can do is say no, and you will be better for the attempt. Be a mentor to others and leave your organization better than you found it. Your time need not be wasted, and your journey need not be lonely. So you don’t have a mentor? — do something about it.