Each year, the President of the United States designates February as African American History Month – a national celebration of both the accomplishments of and long struggle for equality for black Americans. In recognition of African American History Month 2011, the Compass has asked Coast Guard men and women about the valuable role mentoring plays in promoting both diversity and mission success in the Coast Guard.
My favorite quote about mentoring is by Maya Angelou, who said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
My success, both professionally and personally, has benefitted from countless mentors. But my most profound and memorable mentoring relationship was with now retired Capt. Greg Magee.
When I was a lieutenant working as a civil engineer in Miami, then Cmdr. Magee was my commanding officer. He engaged me in a way that was fundamentally different from any previous commanding officer or supervisor. He displayed an exceptionally common touch and treated me more like a human being than a subordinate.
Signaling to me that I had great potential, Cmdr. Magee inspired my utmost trust in him as a leader and professional. Without the constraints of what I now know to be somewhat artificial barriers that typically exist between seniors and subordinates, I thrived under his leadership and mentorship.
It was the first time in my career that I truly felt valued and nurtured. My level of commitment to the Coast Guard before Cmdr. Magee was good, but that commitment skyrocketed during and after my relationship with him. So did my performance!
The best mentors inspire limitless trust and commitment from their people. This is the lesson that I learned from Capt. Magee, and one that I continue to pass on.
The way that he made me feel is the way that we should endeavor to make all of our subordinates and mentees feel. And it’s the way that we should endeavor to make our superiors and mentors make us feel.
If our people are more committed to the organization and trusting of their leadership, then they will be more productive. Also, they will want to maximize their contributions to organizational goals (e.g. be more innovative) and stay longer (e.g. better retention).
The story of Capt. Magee also speaks to the value of diversity management.
As an African-American, I bring different experiences and perspectives to the workplace that some often find unfamiliar. That didn’t seem to matter to Cmdr. Magee. My sense was that he approached me on a human level and embraced me as an individual that just happened to be African-American.
As a majority male, it would have been easy for him to pass me by and seek the comfort of the familiar. I’m glad he chose the unfamiliar and had the courage to get out of his comfort zone. In retrospect, he approached many of us at his unit as a means of nurturing and unleashing the potential he saw in us.
Because of Capt. Magee, Civil Engineering Unit Miami became an award-winning unit and an engine of leadership for the Coast Guard. Everything gets better through mentorship.
Leaders at all levels should be the kind of mentor that Capt. Magee was to me. Seek mentees that are different than you; get out of your comfort zone.
Juniors should seek two or three mentors. A mentor should be no more than two grade levels higher than the mentee since, as individuals, we cannot reasonably project our skills and abilities any higher than that. Pick mentors that inspire you. And let the mentoring happen naturally; don’t force it and don’t expect the relationship to last indefinitely. Most importantly, when you’ve learned the lessons shared by your mentor, pass it on.