For those new to public service, having a good mentor or mentors is the best thing you can do for your career. I have had several good mentors, and they greatly helped me grow and develop in my career. The good kind of mentors you see in Star Wars such as Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda. Mentors that challenge you because they believe in you more than you do (especially in the early stages of your career). They tell you the truth even if it is not what you want to hear. They advocate for you but also know of your limitations and will not put you in a situation you could not handle. If you find such a mentor, be thankful for the lessons you will learn. Also, there is no reason you cannot have several part-time mentors in different areas.
However, just as there are good mentors, there are bad mentors. Continuing the Star Wars analogy, there are the Sith Mentors. Not all bad mentors are Sith Mentors. I’ve had several bad mentors. “You're just another job on my list,” one bad mentor told me. Other bad mentors had nothing to teach or no desire to teach. One potential mentor had four personnel actions filed against her so I wondered if this mentor could get along with people. It has been my experience that having a mentor assigned to you is a mistake. Seek your mentor rather than wait for the HR department to send you one.
The Sith Mentor differs greatly from the good mentor or even the usual bad mentor. Sith Mentors are looking for fresh blood to help the Sith Mentor stay in power or gain power. This mentor will tell you what you want to hear; even if it contradicts what he or she said the last time you spoke. The Sith Mentor is secretive about their past, and only share tantalizing nuggets of information or resources. The Sith Mentor will tell you how they praised you in front of superiors but, in actuality, the Sith Mentor criticizes your abilities and knowledge behind closed doors with your superiors and peers. The Sith Mentor will put you in situations where you are bound to fail (often due to the covert machinations of the Sith Mentor) so the Sith Mentor can come in and save you from failing.
The Sith Mentor justifies this by telling you that you are “paying your dues.” What is going on is that the Sith Mentor realized early on that he or she could get ahead by using the efforts and ideas of others and presenting other people’s work as their own. The Sith Mentor will be the one telling you not to worry about who gets the credit but, the Sith Mentor’s name is at the top of the list when the work is being presented. Even when you are credited with the work, the Sith Mentor is behind you telling how it was their advice and experience that helped you achieve. Fail to show the proper gratitude, and you are just “emotional” or “ungrateful.” The Sith Mentor does not worry about losing you as a mentee; they often have several mentees at one time and will often pit the mentees against each other to fight for the Sith Mentor’s favor. The Sith Mentor often leaves a trail of disillusioned mentees behind him or her as the Sith Mentor advances in his or her career.
How do you avoid the Sith Mentor?
• Take your time in choosing a mentor. Sith Mentor’s will often rush to offer their mentoring before the new government employee can find out the Sith Mentor’s reputation.
• Observe your potential mentor for several months before approaching him or her. Do they have integrity? Are they well-respected by his or her colleagues? What do people say about the potential mentor when the mentor is not around?
• If the potential mentor has current mentees or former mentees, ask the mentees’ honest opinions. Be careful of the mentees with nothing but praise for the mentor. Sith Mentors are expert at creating amazing loyalty in mentees. Look for a balanced appraisal of the potential mentor.
• Consider having more than one mentor. A sounding board of professionals is much better than relying on one person’s advice no matter how good the mentor is.
• Document, document, document, and then document some more the work you do. A good mentor will appreciate your documentation while it will be easier to demonstrate how you contributed to a great product. If a mentor tries to dissuade you from documenting, you have a Sith Mentor.
• If you are in a Sith Mentoring relationship, drop the relationship immediately. Find a good mentor. Also, realize that you will have to do work to repair the damage that the Sith Mentor did to your reputation. It will take time and realize that the Sith Mentor is probably still criticizing you to your leadership.
• Refuse to play in any games that the Sith Mentor will try after you break off the relationship. Realize that the Sith Mentor wants to cast you as being “emotional” or “not yet ready for the responsibility.” Be civil and don’t criticize the Sith Mentor. Defend yourself and your work. Perhaps you want to move on, and you do not want the damage caused by the Sith Mentor to follow you into the next job.
Again, I do not want to persuade you from not having a mentor. Public service can be confusing and challenging. Good mentors help you understand how to use YOUR talents, skills, and knowledge to become a great public servant. It has been my experience that many government workers are good, decent people willing to help each other and there are many good mentors out there. It is rare that you will run across a Sith Mentor but, now that you know how to spot one, you know how to steer clear of his or her influence.
Bill Brantley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.