[April 27, 2020] Many years ago, a friend of mine, Bill Johnson, was finishing the U.S. Infantry Basic Officer Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. An armor Captain that had been a mentor to Bill for many months suggested that my friend ask for an assignment at Fort Polk, Louisiana, after graduation. The mentor was giving bad advice.
Back in the 1980s, when Bill was a junior officer, Fort Polk had a bad reputation. A survey of soldiers taken in the early 1990s showed that Polk was the worst military post for soldiers. The local town of Leesville (sarcastically called Disease-ville because of the prostitutes) was a terrible place, the military post had old, run-down housing, the weather was hot and humid, and the surrounding land was full of critters that made military maneuvers unpleasant. Fort Polk was not the place to be stationed.
There is a lesson in Bill’s circumstances. That lesson is that even if you have a great mentor, that does not relieve you of the task of figuring out your own future. Those being mentored have an active role to play in judging the advice they get. With that in mind, I’ve included some signs that might show that your mentor is not giving you the best advice:
- Your tolerance for risk differs from your mentor. Bill wanted to do well in the U.S. Army, but he didn’t have the guts to take as high a risk that his mentor wanted for him. Sure, the assignment meant hard work, but the reward was illusive. Bill was unwilling to take the risk.
- You know more than your mentor. Bill was a smart guy and had grown up as an “army brat.” So he had a lot of information about military installations around the world. Fort Polk was simply a poor location with no senior headquarters where a good officer could be recognized. Simply, Bill knew where to be stationed and he didn’t need someone else to tell him.
- Your peers know more about you than your mentor. This fact is an important point. Mentors, by the very nature of what they do, don’t know as much about you as your friends, family, and peers. Your peers understand what you want and often know the best way of achieving it. A mentor can never know what your capabilities are and never will know. Ask them for advice; they will not steer you wrong.
- You may be straying from the mentor’s career path. Mentors are more likely to recommend future behavior based upon their path. If they liked stationed in Germany, they would recommend Germany more than a location they’d never been to. This also applies to job assignments, the level of staff work, and the balance between family and work. Mentors view career paths similar to those as being better; that is human nature.
- Is there something that the mentor may gain? Their improved reputation and future advancement reward mentors who produce very successful mentees. The better the mentee does, the better it reflects upon the mentor.
While our first reaction to a mentor’s guidance should not be rejection or great dismay, it should be viewed with some level of skepticism. The key here is not to take mentoring as a set of marching orders. Deciding wisely for yourself is a good alternative.