As a female FBI agent, there were very few other women in my office—or in the building, for that matter. The closest thing to a mentor I had was my male training agent, who viewed me as more of a burden than an opportunity.
But it had been to my advantage to be raised on a cattle ranch in the middle of Wyoming. It was a tough environment—fast food was hitting a deer at 60 miles an hour. My grandmother had ammo on her Christmas list. And there is one thing you never say to a grandmother who is a crack shot with a rifle—“It’s not my fault.”
This was exactly the type of mental toughness I needed when I found myself as a new agent in an FBI squad with few allies and no obvious mentors waiting to take me under their wing. Instead of blaming others, I knew that I would need to find my own way to move forward if I wanted to be successful.
On my first squad, my desk was next to a hardened older agent named Leo who looked at me with suspicion—could a woman be relied upon to have his back if we found ourselves in a shootout? He thought not, or at least had his doubts. I could tell by the way he treated me—with quiet disdain.
Not all mentoring relationships need to be formalized. Leo was an unwitting mentor who would be horrified to think that I considered him as one! But I watched how he worked his cases. He was a thorough investigator who pursued any and all leads. And when he didn’t have any, he still kept at it.
Mentors teach, coach, guide, and motivate. Leo did all of these things for me, without knowing it. I used the information I learned from him, about reading body language and listening for verbal cues, during the rest of my career. I never liked Leo, and we never so much as had a cup of coffee together, but he was one of the best mentors I ever had.
Why is it important for you to have a mentor to guide you toward success? Even more importantly, what characteristics make a good mentor for you?
The term mentor has become watered-down in the last few years. It can encompass anything from self-help books, to touchy-feely therapy sessions when times get tough, to a wise and trusted guide through business and life.
I want to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned about how women can find the perfect mentor to guide them toward success:
1. Be Wary—Very Wary, Of Praise
Like most overachievers, I look for praise in almost everything I do.
As a first grade student, I was never satisfied with anything less than an A. My teacher, Mrs. Archie, was very stingy with praise, so you can imagine how much I disliked her. She let me know right away that I was not the smartest person in the room, so when I did get an A she responded with, “You’ve worked very hard to get this grade.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was creating a growth mindset in the way that I looked at my obstacles.
Researcher Carol Dweck discovered that our mindset affects our ability to fulfill our potential—to grow and learn, take risks, bounce back from adversity, and to build healthy relationships.
If we have a “fixed mindset,” we believe our qualities, including our intelligence, are something we were born with and cannot be changed. If we have a “growth mindset,” we believe that we can cultivate and grow our basic qualities, including our intelligence.
Some of the brightest people avoid challenges, dislike working hard, and wilt in the face of difficulty. In other words, it’s not always the people who start out the smartest in the room who end up being the smartest.
A perfect mentor will challenge you to create a growth mindset.
2. Create A Strong Mind
My grandmother was a larger-than-life force in my life. When things didn’t work out the way I expected, she taught me how to be mentally tough. She had no time for people who would not take responsibility for their situation.
I didn’t sweat it when I found no females to mentor me as an FBI agent. I knew that if I wanted to be treated as an equal, I needed to act as an equal. Whining, complaining, blaming others, and making excuses wouldn’t get me anywhere.
If women are going to use the excuse that they can’t make their way up the corporate ladder because they can’t find other women to mentor them, then they probably aren’t taking their careers very seriously. Take responsibility and find the best person to inspire you to be the best you can be.
Here are the questions I ask myself when looking for a mentor from among the people around me:
How can they help me be better at my job?
Are they respected by subordinates, peers, and superiors?
What skills do they have that I need to develop?
How much more do they know more about (this project) than I do?
In what ways are they willing to share that knowledge?
Will they give me the honest feedback I need?
Why do I admire them?
How will working with them make me a better person?
A perfect mentor will show you how to develop the mental toughness needed to get you through the roadblocks that are in the way of your success.
3. Play Big
In the FBI, power meetings among male leaders were held during happy hour—the ones I was never invited to attend. In many larger corporations, power meetings are held in the men’s bathroom during bio-breaks. Either way, the opportunity for women to participate is limited.
When I was tempted to play the victim, I was thought about Leo. He was awkward, ugly and had a quirky personality. He wasn’t invited to happy hour, either. And yet, the truth is this: Leo was a big player in the world of FBI counterintelligence investigations. As my unofficial mentor, he reminded me that people will do things to let you down, and even screw you over—that is life!
So get over it.
Leo refused to think small. He’d never start a sentence with, “I’m not an expert but…“ and then apologize. He taught me that leaders, both men and women, need to play big by taking control of how they react to a situation, and when the going gets tough, to roll up their sleeves and get even tougher.
He taught me how to recognize self-doubt and not let it dictate my actions.
A perfect mentor will help you to develop confidence in yourself and your abilities.
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