“Genuine, organic, honest mentorship is the single most important tool we have as leaders for individual, organizational and strategic success,” said Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Supervisory Special Agent Alston Richardson during a panel discussion at the 2023 National Defense University’s Black History Month Senior Decision-maker Mentoring Program, at Fort McNair, Feb. 23. Alston and DSS Security Engineering Officer Trisha Marks joined five top military and federal leaders in a discussion about how they achieved career success and what tips they have for rising young leaders in public service.
In addition to Richardson, DSS regional director for African affairs, and Marks, DSS regional director for security engineering in the Western Hemisphere, other panelists were Lt. Gen. Dimitry Henry, director for intelligence, U.S. Marine Corps; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Policy and Stakeholder Engagement Monica Armster Rainge; Rear Admiral Michael E. Platt, military advisor to the secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard; Major General Kodjo S. Knox-Limbacker, the adjutant general of the Virgin Islands; and Diplomat-in-Residence Darion K. Akins, Washington, D.C., metro area.
Discussion centered around how each of the panelists achieved success in their careers and the advice they offered to help others in their respective organizations achieve success.
Several panelists noted that they were introverts but were able to achieve success in the workplace by decompressing at home. Other panelists noted that, as leaders, it is important to help introverts come out of their shells for the good of the organization—and to remember that opportunity is the biggest driver to help them succeed.
“As an engineer, I feel more comfortable around machines than people,” said SEO Marks. She added that it is important to be approachable, to step forward, and to speak out for the good of the organization for it to grow.
“Don’t mentor only friends,” said SSA Richardson. “I have mentors who pushed me beyond the boundaries, pushed me to achieve more, pushed me to the highest expectations.” He noted that it is important to cultivate the ability to listen, not just to speak out—hear different voices and convince leadership to listen to those who are not necessarily at their rank or leadership level.
Among other observations by the panelists:
- Be ready to be a disruptive challenge to the process. Ask those difficult questions, challenge the process.
- Get out of your comfort zone.
- To be good in your job—do what you are told. To be great in your job, do what you are told, but do it better than others.
- Avoid closed loop mentorship in the confines of your own ethnicity. Get mentors who do not look like you. Reach out to non-minority leaders.
- We have a responsibility to lift and climb—and make sure the next generation is prepared to take our place.
- You can go fast if you go alone, but you can go far if you go together.
- Diversity gives you the lens to hear different perspectives.
“It’s important not to look for the loudest and most visible, but to seek out and cultivate the silent,” said SSA Richardson. “As mentors, we must remember that people aren’t always going to advocate for themselves, and you have to do it for them.”