Why Mentors Are Vital For Your Career

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By Marlene Weaver

After more than 40 years of work experience I still look back to my early career and realize that a mentor had a huge impact on my success. My mentor gave me support, guidance, and self-confidence.

In 1971 I was 17 years old, had just graduated high school, and was starting a new job with the federal government. I couldn’t afford to attend college full time, so I planned to go at night hoping that the government would help to pay for some of my courses. I graduated high school on a Sunday and began my job as a GS-2 clerk typist the very next day. I thought I was pretty special. The starting salary was $6,000 a year!

I quickly advanced through a several promotions until finally I was selected to fill the coveted position of a GS-5 budget clerk. My supervisor, Dottie, was a middle aged woman who had no children of her own. She dressed in her fancy suits each day and was always neat and fresh. She had long hair but always wore it up in a French twist to look professional. I especially respected the way she handled herself when higher bosses would come to see her. Dottie was well-respected but stood her ground when necessary. I remember wondering if I could ever emulate her.

Dottie liked me and I respected her. Gradually she gave me more responsibility and over time I was promoted to a GS-6. Dottie told me that my degree would take some time and she wanted me to take government test that would allow me to compete for a professional position without the degree. That test is no longer an option today, but 40 years ago it allowed non-degree holders to compete for positions that required a degree or equivalent. I never would have known about this test if it had not been for Dottie’s advice. I reluctantly took the test and passed. I applied for the GS-7 budget analyst position and received the promotion. Within three years, I was promoted to a GS-11 budget analyst and became Dottie’s deputy. 

Through those years Dottie not only helped me learn but she gave me valuable advice. She would sometimes correct my English when I spoke and she once told me that my skirt was too short for a working environment. One time Dottie suggested that I go home at lunch and change my outfit. I never got upset with her because she always reprimanded me in just the right way and somehow I always knew that she was right. Instead of making me feel stupid, she made me feel young and inexperienced. I wanted to be like Dottie in many ways so I always listened.  She complimented me too and often told me how much she liked my work ethics. I gave up my lunch time more than once to please her and get the report she needed completed.

Every once in a while Dottie would ask me to attend a meeting on her behalf. I felt intimidated and feared that I would be asked a question to which I didn’t know the answer. Before the meeting she would pull me aside and give me a little advice about when to speak, not to answer anything that I was not sure of, and always tell the person asking the question that I would get back with an answer. She told me that people would respect me more if I admitted that I didn’t know something than to pretend that I did and possibly give incorrect information.

Soon, she had me reviewing the work of others and guided me through the right and wrong ways to suggest that a task be done a certain way. In five years Dottie taught me more than any degree ever could and her guidance helped me to persevere through my degree program.

A few years later Dottie retired. I still contacted her and asked for her advice on occasion. Now that she is 85 years old, we still send birthday and holiday cards. Thirty years after working with Dottie, at the age of 57, I retired from the Department of Defense with 39 years of service. I ended my Department of Defense career as a GS-15 managing dozens of people and millions of dollars. I completed my undergraduate degree and continued on to get my MBA. Now, I am pursuing a doctorate degree in Education to strengthen my professional competence as a professor.

Where would I be without the early guidance and advice from Dottie, the best mentor a person could ever have?

Marlene Weaver retired from the Department of Defense in 2010 after 39 years of dedicated serviceWeaver now teaches leadership and management full time at the American Public University System, which offers 87 online degree programs through American Public University and American Military University. APUS’s relevant curriculum, affordability and flexibility help more than 100,000 working adults worldwide pursue degrees in a diverse variety of subjects. For further information, visit www.apu.apus.edu.