As a new FBI agent, I did not have other females on my squad. In fact, there were few female agents in the office and none in leadership. The closest thing to a mentor I had was my training agent, who viewed me as more of a burden than an opportunity.
My desk was next to a hardened older agent named Les who looked at me with suspicion—could a woman be relied upon to have his back if we found ourselves in a shootout? He thought not, or at least had his doubts—I could tell by the way he treated me: with quiet disdain.
Les would be horrified to think that I looked at him as my mentor! But I watched how he worked his cases. He was a thorough investigator who pursued any and all leads. And when he didn’t have any, he still kept at it.
Since we sat next to each other, we were both assigned to a child kidnapping case. Les was the lead agent and I was his back-up. He went to the supervisor and tried to get me taken off the case, but I overheard our supervisor say “Get over it. They’re here to stay. She’s on the squad.”
Les had no choice but to take me along when we interviewed the parents. When we got back into the car he said, “There’s something wrong here. I have a gut feeling. Did you notice anything strange about the way the father kept saying the word no?”
I thought back . . . the father said the word “no” about seven times when Les had asked him if he had any idea of who might have taken his son. I took that to mean he really had no idea. Les, however, had learned how to listen to his gut instinct, understood verbal and nonverbal cues, and was an expert in interviews and interrogations. Because of the father’s exaggerated use of the word “no,” we started investigating the family. When we eventually searched the parent’s home, we found child pornography films. Turns out the little boy had been taken by one of the film producers to make more child porn movies.
The little boy was rescued and placed in a foster home. I was transferred to another office a few months later, and the agent who replaced me and sat at my desk was another female namedRobin Ahrens. One day while assisting the squad on an arrest, she became the first female FBI agent to be killed in the line of duty—accidentally, by one of her fellow agents.
In the first post in this series, Steve Gutzler mentioned that mentors teach, coach, guide, and motivate. Les did all of these things for me, without knowing it. I used the information I learned from him about reading body language and listening for verbal cues the rest of my career. I never liked Les, and we never so much as had a cup of coffee together, but he was one of the best mentors I ever had.
When I became the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California, I needed someone who could help me navigate the world of upper management and FBI Headquarters. I turned to the secretary of the Special Agent In Charge (SAC). Janet was a fountain of information and she patiently guided me through the protocol that was needed to interact with the various personalities I would need to deal with in my new position.
Janet knew more about how the FBI ran than anyone else. In the second post in this series, Lyn Boyer talks emphasizes the need to ask these questions: What is my purpose in finding a mentor? What do I need? How can a mentor help me? I knew I needed to find someone who could show me how the FBI office was managed, and Janet was the perfect person. She also became a good friend.
I’ve had several mentors over the years, and none of them were female agents. I’m not a big proponent of the Sheryl Sandburg way of thinking that women need other women as mentors. People need other people, and if women are going to use the excuse that they can’t make their way up the corporate ladder because they can’t find other women to mentor them, then they probably aren’t taking their careers very seriously.
The most important thing I learned in the FBI is that if you want to be treated as an equal, you must first act as an equal. Whining, complaining, blaming others, and making excuses will not get you anywhere. Take responsibility and find the best person to inspire you to be the best you can be.
Here are the questions I ask myself when looking for a mentor:
- How can they help me be better at my job?
- Are they respected by subordinates, peers, and superiors?
- What skills do they have that I need to develop?
- How much more do they know more about (this project) than I do?
- Are they willing to share that knowledge?
- Will they give me the honest feedback I need?
- How will they give me specific feedback?
- How will working with them make me a better person?
- Why do I admire them?
We all need people to look up and help guide us to the next level of performance. A mentor can be anyone you learn from. Take the initiative and be aggressive in identifying those who can help you be bigger, better, bolder, and more badass!
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