Deputy Surgeon General, Medical Corps Chief
In your opinion, what qualities make a Moves Mentor?
That’s a great question. What makes a good mentor, I’ll talk from the person being mentored, the mentee. I think from the mentee’s perspective what makes a good mentor is somebody who is accessible and truly invested in you as a human being, in a holistic sense. In my mind there’s a very clear difference between a mentor and a sponsor. Mentors build your relationship and they understand who you are as a person. They understand what your desires and goals are, and then they provide you at times support, at other times hard feedback, and at other times some opportunities. But at all times they provide you an honest, supportive environment that is really about what the individual, the mentee, believes, feels, and wants at that moment in time. From a mentor perspective, what I try to do as a mentor is be accessible and hold myself accountable for: is this something I want for them or something they want. And when it’s about what I want for them, that’s more of a sponsorship and I have to take a step back and be unselfish. You care about people, you want things for them, but not losing sight of what your role is. A mentor has to be a sounding board, sometimes the sage of wisdom and advice, and sometimes honest feedback so that individual can achieve what they want to achieve.
How does mentoring benefit the mentor? Why is it in the best interest of a mentor to actually also take advantage of the opportunity?
That’s a great question. I have a purpose in life and one of the fundamental purposes is to bring value – to bring value in whatever it is you’re doing. Whether it’s at home, whether it’s at work. And one of the most impactful and critical ways to bring value is to invest in another human being, so that they can be good at whatever it is they do. As a parent you see your kids as your future, the future of society, and in the workplace you see the folks who you work with and mentor as your future. So it’s a fundamental responsibility that you invest in those that need to follow you so that they can do well, be happy, but most importantly, so that they too can bring value.
Should mentorship be a company requirement or a personal give-back?
I think mentorship within an organization has to be integral to who that organization is and its philosophy. I wear a uniform – I’m in the Army – and developing leaders is foundational to our army and our values. And the way you achieve great leaders – one of those tools is mentoring. If you want to build leaders in an organization, mentorship is integral to that. An organization has to have a philosophy that says developing human beings is woven into who that organization is and then mentorship will flow from that. When you recognize that as being a fundamental value of your organization, then you can put effort into concrete things. My boss does that, in fact, I have to send out a note today. We’ve got a new crop of leaders that are in a school that’s pretty selective and we’re going to assign mentors. We’re going to send a note saying here are our up-and-coming, please make sure that you choose someone… and that’s a purposeful deliberate process. So you’re right, you can’t just say it. You have to value a process and a way of seeing how you’re doing and being able to point the things that try back to the philosophy and the values of your organization.
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time 15 years?
I think 15 years ago I didn’t leverage my mentors nearly as much as I could and should. I went at it alone way too often. I look at the job I was doing – I worked hard at it ,I worked with the team I had – but it didn’t often occur to me to look up and look around and say: who can I go to to just talk about it to get some input. As you grow and as you become responsible for more things you can’t possibly know all of it. You can’t possibly – and quite frankly the stuff I deal with are the things that are hard. I have thousands of people in our organization and they do all the work and they do great work and it’s only when they get to the thing that’s hard do they expect something for me as a deputy surgeon general. And at that level having mentors is huge. It will help you with your blind spots. It will help you, as you pointed out that they can bring such insight and draw insight out of you. That helps you be more effective and 15 years ago I’m not sure I fully appreciate the value. I had tons of mentors throughout my career and as a mentee I was much more of a, I will call it a bit of a parasite. What I really need is something I’d reach out to and they would be there. Another great attribute of a mentor: it’s about the mentee, not the mentor. Looking back, I could have leveraged mentors throughout a little more effectively.
Do you feel that companies and corporations should now start to look at this as a financial investment structure?
I think the facts are out there that in the environment we’re in today, diversity of thought and experience and perspective is critical to having the advantage in whatever it is we do. I think what we struggle with in society, in all cases, is how we define how we get there – as an investment in dollars, people, and resources. And I think it’s really an investment in how we think and how we apply what we have. We have to kind of look at our current processes and g: does that help me achieve the current outcome I’m looking for? And if not, I need to look at how I do that process, not necessarily that I need more money. You talked about my handlers, those individuals I do two things with. First, I personally pick them and we’ve always done that. That’s our process. There’s a slate that comes, lists the names, and I interview and I pick them. But I consciously look at identifying a background that doesn’t normally get the opportunity to work at this level. And I consciously say: the reason they don’t get that opportunity is it because of their race or gender? It may be that what they do day in and day out doesn’t look like what we need at this level. Then I say to myself what they’re going to bring, is it worth what I’m not going to get? I’m going to bring them up here and they’re going to grow and learn because they have the capacity to do it. And the investment on my part is giving them room to grow, and then they get that experience and then they go back. And what I have to do a little differently for those specialities, I’ve got to figure out a way to get them back to where they bring the most value, and still broaden them and give them that experience. I’ve learned a lot from them, and probably, at the organization level, my decisions are better informed. None of that took more money. None of that took more time, none of that took more people. All that took us was just reimagining how we do what we already do, to get after what we say what we want to, which is to be more diverse with respect to perspectives, experiences, and so we can be more inclusive and hence more effective.
Why is it that gender equality is so challenging, especially in the Western and enlightened world that we talk about today?
In the military we say, it’s not hard to change a climate but it’s very challenging to change a culture. But to truly move a culture, which will endure no matter who is in the position, is much more challenging. In our society you look at where our cultures come from, you look at what we do. I’ll share with you, I have a soon to be 12 year old, soon to be 12 next Saturday. My husband passed away two years ago and now I’m a single mom. And I just define myself as a single mom. Not a single parent, a single mom. Because there’s a certain amount within our culture that I am wired to lean towards and identify with. And so in our Western culture that’s really hard to change. And I’m not sure I want to see all of it change, we can have both. One of my best friends said to me you can have both, you can have a widely successful career and still be a good mother and a good wife and so forth. What we have to do is redefine what that looks like and what success looks like so that we are not held back by our culture that defines us in different silos. As a woman, I can be defined as a mom. I can be defined as a wife. I can be defined as a working woman. And in our culture we kind of do that, and we just have to build a culture that understands that you can be all of those things and be successful, without being held accountable against a silo measure. And that’s why I think we struggle a bit because for all that we want, I define myself as a single mom because fundamentally I was raised to believe, and cultured to believe that there’s certain things as a mother that I should do for my child. Does that make sense?
Again it comes back to what you’ve already said earlier. We come from so much conditioning that has taken place, that it’s shifting those margins. And if you can’t support people that you’re mentoring in leadership and getting them to kind of reposition thought processes, nothing is ever going to change. That takes conversations, that takes movements, that takes people to come on board and be a part of change. That needs to happen.
Yep and in mentorship, that’s one of the things I’m very cognisant of. As a mentor I amplify in some levels, and I amplify what’s difficult. I honestly believe that you can have it all. Whatever all is for you. If you don’t allow yourself to be pigeon holed into any one thing, and you allow yourself to be, you internally allow yourself to be the best person and human being you can be, who happens to be a mom. Who also happens to be a spouse, also happens to work. Then your measure of what success looks like can be something that brings you sincere joy because you’re not failing in any of those one areas because you don’t define yourself in any of those one areas. So I’m very conscious in mentorship in sharing how I am very happy with how I am, not happy with how I became a single mom of course not. But as a single mom, I feel like I’m a good mother to my child and I’m a good officer in our army, and I’m a good human being most importantly.
And you have to consciously share that. I say nobody wants to be you if all you amplify is: man I’m so tired, I don’t want to go here and do all this and every time I’m in a room I’m the only woman. Maybe all that’s true but that’s not how I feel and that’s certainly not what I care about.
What do you want the next generation of Power Women to look like?
My niece is a literary agent, another one is a RN, and another one is, we think, is a spy because we don’t normally know exactly what she does. I want them to have all the opportunities and more that I had. I want them to bring value wherever they go. And I want them to have joy as they do it. They need to be unconstrained in defining what it means for them to contribute. I do want them to all contribute. I was raised that way. I have a passion of: we shouldn’t be takers in this world. We just can’t show up and not do something to make something better, even if it’s just the simplest things. This morning I cleaned the house before the cleaners came because I’m neurotic. That was a contribution, and the night before somebody cleaned the kitchen so that I didn’t have to.
I want them to have healthy relationships. I want them to have people in their lives of all genders and all races that value them as human beings and they too value them and they can make things better.
What would be the best personal advice you’ve ever been given and could you share that with us?
Oh gosh, that is hard because I’ve had lots of advice. Some of the key things, one piece of advice just before I deployed came from my brother. He said Telita, keep it in perspective. This is a blip in a great life. So, at any moment in time whenever I feel like it’s the biggest most significant, it’s part of a tapestry of life and keep that in perspective. Keep a positive attitude, keep working hard. And it is going to be okay. Because you can get to make and define, don’t lose yourself in a moment. Don’t lose sight of what’s most important.
With respect to mentorship, I have three that I have carried, or they have carried me depending how you want to look at it throughout my entire career. And two of them, one said and one of them demonstrated it. One mentor said, it’s sexy and seductive to be wanted. Be careful of being seduced into something you don’t want. And I had another mentor when I was being seduced came up to me and said Telita, and this is why I think mentors are so important, he said you don’t need to do this right now in your career. You have a young child, you’ve got a lot going on. You do not need to do this for your career. There will be other opportunities. And what he did was he reminded me of what was important, and I think all of us in life struggle with wanting to give and be that best person and all, and feel conflicted because at this moment in time the best person is something else. And you know it, but you’re trying to force it. You don’t want to make that choice. And he gave me a license to make the best choice for myself as a human being, and for my family. And he was right. I was a coronel at the time, and it did not define my career, back to my brother. They all were right. But it was sexy to be chosen for this really cool thing that I wanted to do. And in hindsight it would have been profoundly selfish. And my mentors helped me see that. So, keep it in perspective and it is sexy and seductive to be wanted, but make sure you’re not being seduced into something that’s not right for you.
Who do you admire and why?
That’s pretty straightforward for me. I absolutely admire my dad. I admire my parents. And why is, you really amplified it. I grew up in a positive household. I grew up and I’ve said this since I was lieutenant colonel, the first time I had to think about it. I grew up in a family that had unconditional love, expectations, that’s why you’ve got to bring value, contribute, right, and accountability. And my parents instilled that in all four of their kids, and they did it in a way where each of us think we’re their favorite. That’s pretty impressive right. Somehow I think I was the favorite, and my younger sister knows she was, my brother, he’s certain on it right. And to be able to do that with your children, empowered us with the sense of worth and value and confidence and peace that allowed us to become who all of us are today. And so I admire my parents for their ability to be positive, to create that sense that, we’re not polyamish, we’ve had our hard knocks in life. I’ve lost my mother, I’ve lost my husband. But fundamentally to raise us with a positive outlook in this world and in this life, and it serves you well in your darkest moments to have done that.