Look Both Ways: Mentorship Is a Two-Way Street

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Two way bridge

During my college years, I spent a lot of time playing racquetball. Now, before I unintentionally create the impression that I was some kind of all-star athlete, let me say that racquetball was a cheap form of entertainment, and the odds of me hitting the ball were significantly improved by being trapped in the room with the ball. Later I would come to appreciate sports metaphors in my work life.

Eventually I found a mentor/boss who not only uses sports metaphors to get his point across, he embodies them; because unlike me, he has no problem hitting the ball—any ball. In high school, Bret Prebula was the all-star athlete featured in local newspapers. He earned nicknames that combined his last name and words like fabulous. Today Bret serves as a Senior Management Analyst for Napa County Executive Office, and I worked under his leadership when he held the position of Corrections Administrative Manager for Napa County Department of Corrections.

As a great sportsman, Bret easily recognizes good teammates based on their innate characteristics and trains them for technical skills. In the early months of our working relationship, I read the job description for the County Executive Officer—the highest position among county government ranks. It crossed my mind that at upper levels of management, the work becomes less about technical expertise and more about being able to understand the game, identify good teammates, and guide the team. It was apparent to me that my boss could do that job, and I wondered if maybe I too possessed that capacity. I shared this thought with him, and he went to the whiteboard to diagram how the system works with government organization charts, the necessary steps to gain exposure to different facets of government, and so on.

A quote by William Raduchel, corporate strategy guru, reminds me of Bret. His advice is “Don’t pick a job. Pick a boss.” Since I did not know Bret or anything of his reputation before working with him, it would be easy to say luck brought us together, but when I reflect upon our first interview, I was at a place in my life where I was ready to learn fearlessly.

Since Bret was stoic throughout the interview process, I took in as much extraneous information as possible in that brief moment to gauge whether we were compatible.  Bret wore studious eyeglasses, a dark suit with pink tie, a matching pocket square, and loud socks. His age was a mystery—somewhere between 25 and 45. (My apologies to HR professionals wincing over the mention of age. I know age should not be a consideration when hiring, but this time I was the candidate.) If offered the job, I knew I would be working with a progressive-minded thinker. I later learned Bret is 10 years my junior.

As public servants, we seek assurance that our jobs match our skills and sensibilities because we don’t want to get locked into a position that isn’t the right fit after working so hard just to get the job. Some employees are content moving widgets all day with the soothing familiarity of repetition. Others find enjoyment in the mystery and variety of each workday, and yet many crave a little of both. Until we experience different jobs and environments, we don’t know what best suites us.

Good news! Most workplaces (yes, even in government) have roles performing a wide range of tasks that make up an organization’s entire workflow. A great boss affords staff the opportunity to stretch into aspects beyond their official duties. More importantly, a boss who allows such opportunities is also a mentor, but a mentor is not always a boss. A boss is invested in your success for the organization, yet a mentor is invested in your success for the organization and for you as a person.

As employment candidates in public service, we must examine what we hope to gain from our workplace experience to better serve the public and communicate that with prospective employers. We must also be mindful of the employer’s perspective. Recruitment and retention are costly and time-consuming for government agencies.

Looking back on my first interview with Bret, I recall each panel member seemed genuinely warm yet with a prescribed amount of professional distance. As questions were asked, it was clear to all of us that the job was not likely to be too challenging for me which begged the question—how long would I stay? I explained that I intended to simplify my life so I could embark on graduate school over the following two years. My plan entailed elimination of a lengthy commute and finding a less demanding position so I had the mental space to take on school while working fulltime. I got the job.

Bret afforded me the opportunity to use my work experience as an ongoing case study in school assignments, which not only enhanced my studies; it made me an all-star on his team. He taught me the intricacies of contract negotiation, fiscal analysis, and attaining autonomy within the local government framework. In return, I helped Bret refine his effective written communication.

In time, we cultivated a relationship of co-mentoring. Bret also taught me to recognize when a report is good enough. As a recovering Grammar Nazi, I belabored aesthetics and the never-ending hunt for typos. I sought perfection in my work by combing the thesaurus for better word choices and elaborating on concepts to ensure context accuracy, but the problem with such pursuits is that the machine of public service never stops. Deadlines must be met, and reports must travel through the system. Unless communication is unclear or inaccurate, we must recognize when something is good enough. With Bret’s help, I managed to adopt effective strategies to get things done quickly while adhering to the necessary yet time-consuming aspects of bureaucracy. This simple piece of advice increased my productivity as well as job satisfaction.

Bret showed me how to navigate the political minefield of those whose CVs barely fit through the door, and I showed him how to tune into the soft-spoken worker bees.  If Bret had a blind spot, it was that he often assumed staff understood his intentions were honorable without realizing he inherited invisible baggage left by predecessors who fostered a culture of distrust. One thing Bret recognized I had going for me is that I am a people person who isn’t star-struck by those higher up the food chain. I enjoy talking with people from all walks of life and learning what inspires them to do their best. (I reserve the right to recant my star-struck comment if I cross paths with Dolly Parton.)

On that note, I once shared with Bret my childhood story about Dolly. In third grade, I drove my parents crazy listening to Dolly’s 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs album. I loved her music so much that I wrote Dolly a letter inviting her to stay at my house. (My father was 100% supportive of the idea.) I even drew a diagram of the house identifying her guest room so she knew I thoroughly vetted all the details. A few weeks later, a large envelope arrived with an enclosed signed glossy photo of Dolly and a letter on red stationery that began “Dear Friend.” My heart swelled. She called me friend! I immediately ran down the street to share it with my friend Melanie. As I basked in that glorious moment, Melanie’s older sister took the wind out of my sail. She claimed anyone who writes to Dolly gets that same letter. I shook my head, convinced Dolly and I were now officially friends. To prove me wrong, Melanie’s older sister sent a letter to Dolly, and when an identical response arrived, she paraded it around the neighborhood to let everyone know that I was not special.

Years later, I shared this story with Bret as we talked about how to deal with those who interfere with the success of others. He told me the best approach is to keep doing good work, and as my mentor, he firmly believed in getting out of the way of others’ success.

Months passed, and I was having a rough day at work. One hot potato after another ended up in my lap. To make matters worse, it was my birthday. By the end of the day, I was too exhausted to celebrate with my family and stared at what seemed to be an insurmountable workload on my desk when Bret walked into my office with a meticulously wrapped gift. (I’m 99% sure his superwoman wife wrapped it. Sorry Bret, but you also told me to give credit where credit is due.) As I tore back the paper, revealed before me was a framed and autographed 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs album, including a certificate of authenticity.

In a flash, I recognized that as my friend, Bret wanted to right the wrong, but as my mentor, this gesture symbolized how much I accomplished in our time together by becoming an all-star in my own right, learning to manage the complexities of a job never found in the actual job description. I thanked Bret profusely. He responded, “Mentorship is a two way street, my friend.”

Each mentorship has its own dynamics, but here are additional take-a-ways about mentorship as well as my former boss/dear friend/mentor, Bret Prebula:

  1. Mentors simply share their experience walking a path before us.
  2. Coffee is an economical form of currency in mentorships.
  3. Colorful socks provoke social reform. (Bret converted many law enforcement officers to think beyond black, white, and tan.)
  4. Mentors push others to grow where there is weakness and flourish where there is strength.
  5. Mentorship can be found through professional networks like MMANC.
  6. Mentors never stop learning.
  7. Excellence and good enough are relative.
  8. When all else fails, consider self-mentoring as suggested by author of Playing Big, Tara Mohr.

 

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