A recent status update on my LinkedIn account resulted in a nice conversation with a Department of Defense (DoD) civilian on the topic of mentoring, networking, and actively engaging with others. He made mention that in his 20+ years working with military personnel, he had not mentored a single one. He went on to explain that he felt civilians had little to offer in the way of mentorship to those in uniform because they cannot influence evaluations, promotions, nor future assignment. He may be right about the level of influence, but his response struck me as odd because I don’t see any of those as roles of a mentor. If I did, I most certainly wouldn’t have accumulated the number of civilian mentors and protégés from whom I currently benefit. I am of the mind that mentors do two things…

  1. Facilitate professional/personal development
  2. Advise us on how we might navigate a specific set of circumstances

I have never thought that a mentor would directly influence my evaluation, promotability, or future employment; though I will admit that they indirectly help me to influence all three. I certainly hope that those I consider protégés don’t see any of those as a primary reason for the relationship we enjoy.

I am certainly not alone by acknowledging I seek out potential mentors who give me a reason to want to learn from, with, and through them. I am also fairly overt about signaling my values and philosophy as a means of giving others who see value in my WHY as a reason to add me to their network. I network with and mentor people not so much because of who they are, but because of who they want to become. Likewise, I seek out mentors who I believe can help me reach my potential, not because I think they might get me promoted or directly influence my future employment.

Last week, I had the distinct honor of promoting a Shipmate to Senior Chief. Officiating the promotion was the honor, the fact that we were in the White House’s West Wing was a bonus. The ceremony consisted of three Chiefs being promoted, two with whom I had served during my Executive Officer tour over a decade prior. Years ago, these two Shipmates had given me a reason to want them as part of my network, and the invitation to officiate served as a signal that I had given at least one of them a reason to keep me as part of theirs. When we served together, I was a Lieutenant and they were junior enlisted Sailors. There was not much I could do for them in the way of promotion and there was arguably even less they could do for me (though I will freely admit that both have contributed to my professional fulfillment over the years). All three of us have done pretty well for ourselves since then, yet none of us had any direct influence on the success of the others. That was not the reason we remain a part of each others’ lives. The reason is merely a desire to help each other, to lean on each other, and to learn from each other because we cared enough to connect years ago.

True mentorship and meaningful networking don’t just happen. They are a direct result of the person we are. Those with protégés give others reason to want to learn from them. Those with mentors give others reason to want to invest in them. I have been mandated to participate in forced mentorship in the past and those relationships never lasted…they were destined to fail. A civilian in my current work-center recently remarked on the number of people who come by my desk to get advice, share information, and just personally connect. I hadn’t thought it significant until he pointed out the number of other Officers those same people walked right by to connect with me.  He was on to something.

Early in my career, I was warned that leaders should not get close to those whom they are charged to lead. It’s a good thing I thought better than to take that advice. No, I don’t fraternize. No, I don’t play favorites. Yes, I care enough to get close to those with whom I lead. It is true that you can manage a team without getting close, but it is impossible to lead unless you are willing to get close.

How well do you know the people on your team? Who is married? Who has kids? Who has a birthday next month? Who is going through challenging times at home? Who has recently celebrated a significant milestone or has one on the horizon?

During the promotion ceremony, I proudly stood in front of the sizeable audience amassed in the West Wing’s Dining Room to celebrate the Sailors to my side, but all I really saw was the three of us. Three Naval Security Group Activity Naples alums (the command we shared over a decade ago) who gave each other reason to maintain contact and made it a point to enjoy this milestone together.

  • Who are you investing in today?
  • Who are you giving reason to seek you out as a protégé or mentor?
  • What will you and your network become over time?

Engage. Connect. Grow.