I had actually already selected my mentor many years before I ever applied to the SES CDP. In fact, I selected my mentor when I got into the leadership development program at my agency for GS-11-14s. She has been my mentor ever since, and continues to support me in that role even today. In fact, she has read most of this stuff I’ve been writing. Her advice to me was to not publish it. This is the first time in which I’m going against her recommendation.
When choosing a mentor, you can select a captain of industry, or some bigwig. But I don’t think that type of person will actually serve you well as a mentor. That type of person is better as a “door-opener” than a mentor. A door-opener can introduce you to the right people and put you into situations in which you can progress along a career path. But a door-opener won’t be able to sit you down and deliver hard truths about you as a leader or you as a person. That is what I needed.
Before I got into that first leadership development program, people outside of my circle would have said that I was a terrific leader. I was an ass-kicker. I pursued my projects very aggressively and I knew every aspect about my projects. People inside my organization hated me. Yes, I delivered results, but at what cost? I rode people really hard; too hard. When most of my projects ended, people on my team didn’t want to work with me because I micromanaged them.
This is where a true mentor can step in and help a person to realize the truth. She sat me down and we had a long talk about past projects. While my projects were successful, my impact on the team was detrimental. I ate people up. By the time my projects finished, the people on my teams were tired and spent. I had to change my approach to be less of a slave driver cracking a whip and more inspiring showing the path forward. I had to stop trying to do everything and help people to perform their part and shine. As a control freak, it was hard for me to let go. Eventually I learned how to do that and became much more collaborative.
That never would have happened with a door-opener. I needed a mentor who wasn’t afraid to kick my ass and tell me things that would hurt my feelings. That is the type of mentor you need. You need someone who has seen you in action, who can observe how you handle certain situations and can help you to learn from those situations. Captains of industry probably don’t have much opportunity to see you in action, so they make bad mentors.
So get a mentor and listen to him or her. Develop your IDP and ask for his or her input in the plan. As you write your ECQs, ask your mentor to review them and give you feedback. My mentor and I probably went through 40 rounds of revisions before I got it right. In short, your mentor will help you more than any other person.
Since we are in IT, I like to think that we have a natural inclination to gather and trust data and evidence more than gut or instinct. I truly believe that the more you know yourself, the better equipped you will be to regulate the things that negatively impact your opportunities to be successful. This is why I’m a big support of Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence (EQ). For too long people have thought that success is to be derived from how smart a person is, IQ. But Goleman postulates that it is a person’s emotional intelligence that is a better judge of whether someone will be effective. As such, I recommend two of his articles to everyone who asks for guidance on being a better leader. The first is a 10-page article titled “What Makes a Leader” from Harvard Business Review. You need to consider this article and relate it to yourself. I was weak in self-regulation and empathy and strong in the other areas. You need to consider and turn your weak areas into strong ones.
The second article I recommend is “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance.” This article builds upon the previous one and identifies several leadership styles. After reading this, I discovered that my default style was as a pace-setter. I needed to develop other leadership styles and become comfortable recognizing when and how best to use them. Imagine if you have a pair of adjustable pliers. That is a really good tool and you can accomplish a lot with them. But sometimes you need a screwdriver and sometimes you need a hammer. Being able to leverage different leadership styles is like picking the best, most efficient tool for the job at hand.
Other data sources that I think are helpful include the Myers-Briggs assessment. You are better served by knowing where you are on this assessment. That recognition will help you to craft messages and communicate more effectively with people who are different than you.
Another good assessment is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. This one helps you to understand how you deal with conflict. This recognition can be really helpful for long-term situations. For me, too many times I would win a battle but lose the war. I would win every argument, but then people would carry that resentment into other things. The trick is to not get to an argument by figuring out how to collaborate.
Feel free to use other data to help you better understand yourself. Use all of this information to support your case for certain experiences in your IDP. The trick is to build strong and compelling cases for specific activities that will make progress against your stated goal. Every time you gather data, check in with your mentor to ensure that you are understanding and interpreting the data correctly and putting it in context for who you are.
Special Assignments and Details
Lastly, do not limit your consideration of professional development. Classes, educational programs, and assessments are great. Real experience is great, too. I am a gigantic believer in using detail assignments to help develop people. Remember those new leadership styles that we want to experiment with? There is no better opportunity to reinvent yourself and perfect those styles than a detail assignment. You get thrown in with a bunch of people who don’t know you. You have an opportunity to set their expectations. You can do it with the same leadership styles that you have always used, or you can try out new ones and see what the impact is.
Detail assignments give you a safe place to learn the craft and perfect how you want to lead. I remember my first annual performance review with a subordinate when I was detailed as an acting supervisor. It didn’t go so well with the person who was the lazy, unmotivated, do-nothing member of the team. We ended up pausing the meeting and reconvening with his union representative and my supervisor. I really learned a lot from that experience, especially about what not to do. But now I’m a supervisor with my own team and these experiences are great, even when I have to have difficult conversations. I learned from that experience and applied that learning going forward.
As you construct your IDP, be creative and be flexible. If there is a vacancy that can possibly help you to build your experience, try out new leadership styles, and/or give you a good story that can support an ECQ, work with your supervisor to get it into your IDP and pursue those types of activities. I have been on four separate detail assignments. Each one has been significant for turning a weakness in my resume into a strength. A detail assignment will likely be a component of an SES CDP program so really consider your strengths and weaknesses before signing up for a detail there. You can take one that is on the menu, or you can cultivate your own detail assignment that will give you exactly what you need to move forward with your career.