Mentoring: Making Rock Stars out of Ordinary People

Long ago and far away

Long ago and far away

I love mentoring the next generation. When I one day retire, I want to know that I don’t have to worry because I’ve left the future in good hands.

About a year into my three-year internship program that started my Federal career, I was in my second assignment.  I was in my 20’s, very quiet and shy, and other than the fact that my immediate supervisor thought I did fantastic work, no one paid much attention to me.  I wasn’t a social butterfly or an outgoing, take-charge leader.  For the most part, I was invisible in the crowd and, it seemed, destined to remain that way.

My GS-13 supervisor, whom I adored, and an abrasive GS-13 supervisor were branch chiefs in my organization.  I was glad I wasn’t in Joe’s branch when I was assigned to this office because Joe was a sometimes…pushy…manager.  His personality had some jagged edges that made him unpopular with his peers and bosses and often the subject of ridicule by the younger generation.  Joe was a little bit competitive about his branch.  At least, that’s how I saw it then.  His 20+ employees were always briefing the General or in the Front Office or getting awards. He told war stories ad nauseum, and said entirely the wrong things to people without meaning to.  In spite of his bull-in-a-china-shop syndrome (“Are you pregnant?  That dress makes you that way.” Or “You look like crap today.  Do you need to be on sick leave?”), he stood up for his people in an impressive way and shouldered the blame when anything went wrong.  He was gruff, tactless–and caring.

He built superstars out of ordinary people.

One of the organization’s training methods was to give each member a subject to prepare a short briefing for and then give that briefing to the entire group of 40+ employees.  I was on the calendar for a week in February.  I put together my charts on my subject matter and briefed the group for an hour.  For many of my coworkers, it was the first time they’d heard me speak, let alone brief, and I briefed mostly with my head in my charts.  I probably read a few,  word for word.  Afterward, Joe–not my supervisor–raved about how good my briefing was.   He did that occasionally for his branch, but not for mine.  He called me into his office and coached me on my briefing.  I sorta thought I was in trouble at first because he wasn’t my supervisor.  He tried to get me switched to his branch but was turned down.  That was okay with me; Joe could be intense, passionate, and scary when it came to work and my own supervisor was laid-back, funny, and pleasant to be around.  A week later after my initial briefing, Joe got me on the training roster to teach the course to several groups of 60-100 employees, both in and out of my career field.  I was a GS-5 with less than a year’s experience, but I was briefing Colonels and GS-15’s on a particular aspect of their jobs that I barely knew–but quickly became an expert in.  Joe said he saw something in me that everyone else needed to see and began making sure I had opportunities to let them see it.

Flying By Night novelHe followed up with more briefings and special projects for me, with regular chats and mentoring sessions, and with volunteering me to do special projects for our GS-15 and Colonel.   One of those projects went wrong because a GS-12 staffer who worked in the Front Office made a mistake and blamed me for it even though I hadn’t touched that part of the project.  As an intern, I had no credibility against this GS-12 who’d made the mistake and needed a scapegoat. To them, I looked like a stupid kid.  I was called into the Front Office to be punished and was afraid of losing my job, but Joe stepped in and took the tongue lashing from the GS-15. I could barely stand the way he crawled all over Joe, but Joe took it and even took the blame himself to protect me since it was a case of he said/she said with the GS-12.  Joe showed me what it was like to stand up for your people, even if they’re not the people you supervise.  (Side note:  Ten years later, that conniving and mediocre GS-12 worked for me. He never rose any higher, and he retired a GS-12.)

A few years later, Joe passed away at the age of 47 after a short, unexpected illness.  We talked several times in those last few months as colon cancer wasted him and he could no longer work.  He gave me as much advice as he could before he passed, and I wasn’t alone–a few dozen of the people he’d mentored bolstered those last days for him and many of us were at his funeral where they played his favorite song, Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young,”  which he’d quoted to me the last time we spoke.

Until now, I’ve never thought about where I learned how to mentor or just how long ago that briefing was when Joe plucked me from obscurity:  February 1988.   His legacy lives on with me, not just in the technical work I do but in my intention to make the ordinary people who work for me into rockstars.

“And when you finally fly away, I’ll be hoping that I served you well.

For all the wisdom of a lifetime, no one can ever tell.

But whatever road you choose, I’m right behind you, win or lose.”