The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Office of Corporate Communications sat down with Beth Flanagan, director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Employment Opportunity to get her perspective on the importance and impact mentoring can have for an individual’s career and for an organization. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
What does mentoring mean to you?
Mentoring means coaching; it means friendship; it means honesty. It means someone that you can go to for advice. Mentors are a sounding board, who can help you work through issues and see pathways forward that you might not find because they offer a different perspective.
On the other hand, mentoring can also be very informal. I have had mentors over my career that didn’t even know they were mentoring me because I just listened to them, I watched them. There is a spectrum of how you can approach mentoring -- a long-term relationship or just those casual conversations.
Can you describe to me an impactful mentoring moment you had in your career?
One of those impactful mentoring moments happened when I didn't get a job that I had expected to get. This person told me that people were going to be watching how I dealt with the disappointment and I just needed to kind of power through and know it was okay. It wasn't going to be the end of the road for my career and I just needed to think about how I was going to steer through the next phase of my career.
That's also part of what mentors do, they help you navigate and they cheer your successes. That has been a consistent theme for my long-term mentors - they've been my biggest cheerleaders. They pump me up and they've helped me when I've been feeling down, they'll help me see myself in ways that I may not have seen. On the other hand, they'll tell me the truth by saying, ‘You know what, Beth? You might want to think about that in a different way.’
What is your favorite piece of advice you have received from a mentor?
One person told me, ‘There's a reason why in a car, your windshield is so large and rearview mirror is so small -- because you really need to live your life moving forward, instead of looking backwards.’ I thought about it and it really crystallized how I try to live my life. And, now I give that advice to people I mentor. This man would not consider himself a mentor to me, but in that moment, on the spot, this person was the mentor I needed. And, I think that's why I say: mentoring can take many shapes and sizes.
The best piece of advice actually, was from one of my executive officers, who told me that I needed to start saying, ‘no.’ I was saying ‘yes’ to too many things and I was running myself into the ground. I was getting myself sick. She said, ‘You're not being effective.’ I look back -- it was bravery. It was speaking truth to power. Speak truth to your boss and say, ‘Stop you're not being effective’ is also a form of mentoring. It's not just a one-way street, it's a two-way street -- the mentee has a lot to offer talking to the mentor, because there's a different perspective.
How can someone get the most out of mentoring?
One of the things is be curious. Ask questions and don't be afraid to ask someone to mentor you. What I recommend people do if they find somebody that they want to enter into a mentoring relationship with is get on their calendar and go in with a set of questions that they want answered. And, then over time, build up that relationship with that person or sometimes you may get the answers you need from just one meeting. Being flexible is part of getting the most from mentoring.
What type of mentoring program does NGA have?
I think that NGA has a lot of opportunities for mentoring – both formal and informal. The majority of people that I know, and how I have actually found most of my mentors, is very informal -- either through people coming in and asking me or people who I've met over time. NGA’s Professional Networks hosts speed mentoring events, our Special Emphasis Program Council’s hosted Coffee with Mentors which is a great way to get to know a senior executive in an informal setting, and we sponsor numerous Lean In Circles across the enterprise, We also have a more formal reverse mentoring program where NGA pairs junior employees with senior executives.
One thing that we've started is a ‘How I Mentor’ series where we highlight tips and tricks for mentoring, including how to hold mentoring conversations and how to be a mentor/mentee. We are also updating our mentoring portal, so that NGA employees can easily find information in a single location.
Why is it important for organizations to invest in a mentorship program?
One of the reasons organizations should invest in a mentorship program is because it's giving back and helping to develop the future of an organization. I don't know of anybody that reached the senior level who didn't benefit from a mentor. I think it's incumbent on all of us to give back to the organization and help develop the people at the more junior levels. That is how we grow and strengthen the future of the organization.
It also helps with the diversity of the organization, because you get to know people across boundaries, across the organization. The more people that they can talk to in another division, at another level, maybe a different location, people can get thoughts about different perspectives, different careers. My path was one path but everyone has forged a different path. The key is to get more awareness of those different pathways.