Friday, December 18, 2009

My Mentors

I originally wrote this post about a year and a half ago, just when I took over MAUI in Bahrain and started blogging. It was probably my second post ever, but I think it's good enough to repost, especially since I've been talking about doing it for a while. Maybe it's solely an opportunity to brag about myself and my successes, but these five women, whether they know it or not, had a huge hand in my current situation.

The first and most influential is my very first boss ever. I was 14 when I started working at Larriland Farm for Lynn Moore. I was very impressionable. She was my boss on and off for seven years, as I finished high school and entered college. I didn't know much about myself, what I wanted to do, or where I was going with my life. She exuded confidence as she ran the family farm with her two brothers. She took care of the marketing, selling the fruits and vegetables produced on the farm at the on-site barn market, in the pick-your-own fields, at a satellite market, and at about half a dozen farmers' markets in the local region. Looking back on it now, I'm impressed all over again at how many moving parts she kept track of...I mean, for goodness sake, Lynn kept a crew of nearly 20 teenagers motivated during the sticky humid heat of East Coast summers to actually care about making sure all the strawberries/tomatoes/blueberries/peaches were completely picked from each row before moving on the next one.

But on to some of the lessons I learned from her, with their translations that I've figured out over the last (good gawd!!) twenty plus years:

1. Always put tools back where you found them. Translation: Be responsible about equipment. Even a stapler. Someone else depends on being able to find it when they need to use it. CG translation = configuration management

2. If someone asks you a question, and you don't know the answer, politely say, "I don't know, but let me find out for you." And follow through with an answer. Translation: Customer service is important in nearly every job anywhere. As a supervisor, my subordinates are my customers and I need to make sure they have what they need to get their jobs done. And following through ensures that something is done correctly.

3. Before you start an engine, check the oil. Translation: Take care of your stuff; don't abuse it. It'll last longer that way. CG translation = Preventative Maintenance Systems (yes, the acronym for that is PMS, which I've always thought was a little unfortunate)

4. Be knowledgeable about the details. Translation: Know your stuff. Bluster will only get you so far if you don't have any credibility.

5. From her brothers (who are both over 6 feet tall), push the seat all the way back when you get out of the truck. Translation: Be considerate of other people, embrace the diversity of perspectives working with others provides.

6. Product quality is singularly important. Translation: Uh, duh. But even with the simple stuff, make sure there're no typos, commas are in the right place, and use spell check. There's so much more credibility in appearing literate.

7. Presentation, presentation, presentation. Translation: People pay more attention when something is attractively presented. Use colors and be creative.

8. Always wear sunscreen (I wasn't ever so good at that one), a hat and sunglasses when you go out for field work, and take a jug of water.

Those are all basic job skills. One of the leadership skills I learned from Lynn was the importance of giving people the opportunity to learn and develop skills on their own. I remember being sent out to the blackberry field to prune the canes. It's not a particularly hard job, but in order to maximize production and make picking easier, there's a certain amount of skill required. Lynn took a group of about six of us out to the field, talked through what the goals of the project were, explained why each was important, then gave us a demonstration on a handfull of sections. And then she left us alone! She came back in about an hour to check on our progress, gave us a couple of pointers and then left again. It was brilliant.

I learned later, from LAMS (Leadership and Management School), that tactic works well with motivated, but unknowledgable subordinates. There's a whole matrix: unknowledgeable/unmotivated, unknowledgeable/motivated, knowledgeable/unmotivated, knowledgeable/motivated. Lynn's practice gave me a concrete example of the benefits of knowing and understanding your subordinates.

And somehow, despite 80+ hour work weeks around greasy tractors and farm equipment, dirt roads and rotten produce, she managed to have the most beautiful hands.

My next mentor was Dr. Carolyn Orr, the Agriculture Department Head at Berea College where I got my Bachelor's degree. She was the youngest of five professors, and the only woman in a heavily male-dominated field. All the others were old white men, very firmly entrenched in the agricultural practices developed during the Green Revolution in the 1970s.

Carolyn taught me the importance of presence. You knew when Carolyn walked into the room. Sometimes it was because she was loud and yelled at people to get her point across, but more than that I think it was her own self-confidence that did not allow her to be ignored. And god bless her patience with my best friend and me as we cracked jokes and snickered our way through the summer job program at the College Farms.

Dr. Nancy Creamer was my graduate advisor at North Carolina State University and taught me the necessity of being passionate about my job. From what I remember about working with Nancy, she truly believes in the importance of the work that she does. It's practical and easily applied to real-world situations that can almost immediately benefit her target audience. While she puts in long hours, travels extensively away from her family, and constantly fights the inanity of an institutional bureaucracy, her work has meaning and the goal of making the world a better place.

While I agree with the Coast Guard's goals, unfortunately, I can't say I have a deep, underlying commitment to our methods. I will support them to the best of my ability, because that's what I do. My command philosophy states that [a job worth doing is worth doing to the best of my ability, so that I can look back and be able to honestly tell myself that I've faced every task and challenge to the best of my ability. This is the only way the sacrifices I've made will have been worthwhile.] But that's selfishly for my own benefit.

I joke sometimes that I sold my soul by being a cutterman, instead of a duck-scrubber, which was my original interest on coming into the Coast Guard over ten years ago. I know I made the right choice for my personal sanity. But, the cutter's belching diesel exhaust, lack of thorough recycling program and practice of discharging sewage outside of three nautical miles from land still go against my own personal beliefs of environmental stewardship and simple living. I guess the lesson I have to take from Nancy is to enjoy at least something of what I do. And I do absolutely. I love driving the ship, working with the people, and seeing all the fantastical sights there are to see. I think part of what I like about it is that I'm pretty good at it.

I took a professional break after graduate school and worked as a receptionist at a massage therapy school. The director, Kathleen Grey, was a very kind woman, dedicated to making people feel better and ease their pain. My job at the school was by no means challenging, but Kathleen taught me a lesson that I think a large number of professional, driven women forget...Take care of yourself. She made her students take Tai Chi and yoga to strengthen themselves personally before she allowed them to practice bodywork on other people.

I'm still working on the fitness attitude for this one...I do my best to get three workouts in a week, when we're inport. Underway is a *whole* 'nother story, especially with this port and starboard nonsense we've got going on right now. But regular yoga, occasional massages and nightly face cream are all vestiges of working with Kathleen that I really enjoy.

CAPT Beverly Kelley (ret) is the last of this group of mentors. She joined the military the year I was born. She fought some historic gender battles to earn her commands, and was the first woman in command of many of the units at which she served. I could not have asked for a better introduction to being a female officer than to have worked for her. I remember getting frustrated with her frequently for her seemingly embittered stance when it came to women in the military. I knew she had had to fight to get where she was, but why was she still fighting those battles, when things were so normalized for women in the military now? Well, nine years and five units later, I think I understand better. It is far, far easier for women, but it's still not a totally comfortable environment for, well, at least me. I should know better by now than to make generalizations that put word into other people's mouths. But CAPT Kelley, thanks for all you did along your way to make my path that much smoother.

So those are my mentors. One last note on this topic of mentors, though. I experienced a complete perspective shift when I was OPS on a WHEC, where I was the senior female onboard a ship of 160 people, about 20 of whom were women. By default, I became a mentor for them. I still keep in touch with some of them, and it's amazing to hear about their successes and triumphs, and watch them struggle through the difficulties. I never set out to influence them, but through my position and experience I was able to offer them some perspective on how to persevere through and be happy with themselves along the way...or at least I hope that's what I did.

I wanted to honor and thank those women that influenced me professionally. So, ladies, thanks! I wish the best for you all and am so grateful for the opportunities that I've had because of what I've learned from each of you.

1 comment:

Dad said...

And remember in addition to correct punctuation, spelling, etc. there is no where to be found on any computer keyboard in the world a key that is labeled "PROOFREAD." One must do that little chore for oneself. A task that I constantly preach in all of my classes.