Got a great mentor? Cherish that relationship

You can't force a mentoring relationship. But when it happens, the results last a lifetime.

Something came through in my interview with Dr. Francis Collins that aired earlier this week. He is not only a great scientist, but also a mentor to many young scientists. Mentorship in its best sense transmits not only knowledge but also character.

He referred specifically to a cohort of three post-graduate students in residence at the laboratory of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Collins will continue to run the lab after he steps down from the directorship of the NIH itself. After several conversations with Collins over the years, I’d bet he is an effective and enthusiastic mentor. His disarming, aw-shucks demeanor is no act. Combine that with real scientific chops (and the record to prove it) and you’ve got the ingredients for influencing the up-and-comers in a positive way.

As the government frets about retaining people, mentorship is an under-appreciated component in helping people feel enthusiastic about an organization.

At last night’s Service to America Medals event at the Kennedy Center, mentorship was on display all over. The federal employees of the year were a young Black scientist, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, and her older White mentor, Dr. Barney Graham. Their work at the NIH Vaccine Research Center enabled the fast development of Covid-19 vaccines. She quipped about someday taking over as the center’s director, while extolling Graham as a mentor. He said it was time for the next generation of scientists.

I had a moment of cosmic convergence this week. I received word of the passing of my own mentor, a man who had more influence on my life than anyone except my father. His name was Jack O’Connor, and he hired me on June 30, 1980. To this day I often ask myself, how would Jack  deal with this?

Long after my career diverged from his direct supervision, we remained friends. Just before the pandemic, I had lunch with him at an old haunt, once frequented by employees of a now-gone publishing company where we worked. I spoke on the phone with him last fall, during the time when his second oldest son was running for the Senate.

If you’ve had a person like that in your life, you know what I mean. It’s rare and invaluable.

Jack was a proud former Marine. He’d served in the late 1950s. He would take the Marine Corps birthday as a vacation day every year. He kept a presumably disarmed grenade hanging on a little hook, like a pocket watch, on his desk. He once gave me a huge glass ashtray that I still have — in those days you could smoke a cigar in your office. In his old age he edited and produced a newsletter about his former Marine Corps company.

His upright bearing and articulate but blunt way of speaking made a lasting impression on my own comportment. As did his direct style of writing. So although I never had any connection to the Marine Corps of my own, I sometimes feel I inculcated a drop of its cultural tincture via a man I admired, loved, and learned a lot from.

So here’s the cosmic convergence. Bummed by a sense of loss, I came in the next morning and, as I do every morning, reviewed my interview taping schedule for the Federal Drive. The first two subjects of the morning? Why, two former Marines!

I discussed mentors with both of them. Chris Willingham is a retired sergeant major of the Marines. His career had a heavy emphasis on training and deployment of war dogs. The interview — watch for it — concerns the unveiling this coming Veterans Day of a sculpture at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. Created by sculptor Susan Bahary, it depicts the Navy SEAL Team Six dog handler John Douangdara and his war dog Bart. Bart was a Belgian Malinois, a breed of stunning intelligence and appearance. They and 29 other sailors were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011.

Willingham is president of the U.S. War Dogs Association, which supports working and retired war dogs, and their handlers and adopters. He still trains dogs for the government. He notes it’s one thing to dote on a pet, but quite another thing to go through combat with a dog that later becomes a pet. If you’ve ever had a dog, you know that in some way a great dog leaves something with you when it departs for the proverbial rainbow bridge — a sort of reverse mentorship.

Willingham named as his great mentor the founder of the USWDA, Ronald Aiello. Aiello is a retired Marine, Vietnam veteran, and association founder. “It’s still his organization,” Willingham said, referring to the USWDA. He said he confers with Aiello constantly, and feels honored to take over the organization day-to-day.

Retired Lieutenant General Mark Faulkner spent 33 years in the Marines, with a specialty in logistics. Just named as president of the Institute for Defense and Business, he’s bringing a logistics slant to the non-profit provider of executive-level education. Faulkner said his mentor is now-retired Major General Clifford Stanley, who is the first Black officer to have led a Marine Corps regiment. Faulkner said they met when Stanley was a major and Faulkner a lieutenant. He said they stay in touch to this day.

Having an extraordinary mentor means you learn not just about the job, but also about career development, comportment, problem-solving, perhaps even how to improve your approach to life. My late mentor gave me great responsibility at a young age for planning and supervising cover packages for a major national trade magazine.  I also learned to speak effectively in public. And I picked up an appreciation of Irish whiskey; out-of-office lunches always started out with a Jameson — never Bushmills — on the rocks.

Mentorship programs are sometimes launched by HR departments as formal programs, attempting to match up people en masse. Mentor and mentee — it sounds like mints — may or may not hit if off in an artificial matchup. If the mentee even shows up.

How the magic happens where you connect with a person in a lasting way that’s the right balance of professional and personal, well that’s a mystery.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

The record for fastest time to carve a pumpkin was set in 2013 by Stephen Clark of New York. It took 16.47 seconds. To qualify, the pumpkin had to have eyes, nose, mouth and ears.

Source: Guiness World Records

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