What I learned at WDSN ‘Speed Mentoring’
On May 10 2018, ASPI’s Women in Defence and Security Network held a speed-mentoring event in Canberra thanks to the generous support of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Approximately 250 ‘mentees’ were able to listen and learn from 30 mentors throughout the night. The mentors were women with leading positions in the public service, military, academia, think tanks, media and private industry, who are all working on defence and security related issues.
As the groups made their way around the room, I observed that every mentor had a different strategy of introducing her and her story to the mentees. That led to very different questions being asked, and a variety of answers provided. While making the round from station to station, and at the mingling afterwards that allowed you to approach mentors again for follow-up questions, I realised that I had learned a lot that night. While many attendees were students trying to figure out how to enter the workforce, it was also nice to see people that have jobs—but that have realised that one is never too old or experienced to learn more.
Let me share a couple of ‘lessons learned’ that I was fortunate enough to have been shared with by incredible women I met that night, or simply receiving an assurance to something that deep down I knew I couldn’t be the only one rooting for:
1. Be passionate about what you do. This was advice that I heard more than once over the course of the night. No matter their background, the mentors seemed all to agree (as I had hoped for) that passion is vital when it comes to your job choice. One has to be aware that not being passionate about the daily grind can quickly turn life towards the downward path. Another important thought from Thursday night: when you realise the passion is waning, that’s when you should change your job.
2. Stop apologising and say no (sometimes). A very important piece of advice. For example, a lot of women will start an email asking for something such as a meeting with an apology directed at the receiver. Unless you upset someone, there is no room for apologies in work-related communication. At the same time, you don’t have to apologise for saying ‘no’ to a request. You are the one (or at least you should be) aware of your schedule and to-do list. But I learned to not just simply brush it off but rather phrase it politely along the lines of ‘that’s a great idea, maybe we can look at that after I finish this big report’ or ‘no thank you but do keep me updated on the progress, maybe I can contribute at a later point’.
3. Be at the table. There’s a meeting discussing something concerning your work area or expertise but you didn’t get an invite. Sounds familiar? Yes, we’ve all been there. In that case, pull up a chair and demand a seat at the table. Don’t be shy of throwing in your two cents on a topic. Maybe your remark will make the difference in the end—and will demonstrate to your colleagues that you actually know what you’re talking about and that it would be good to invite you to the next meeting. And prepare to potentially be the only woman in the room/on the table.
4. Do your research and ask questions. When joining a new organisation, don’t expect to be told everything ranging from responsibilities to decision-making. Often you have to figure things out for yourself, which is why you shouldn’t scare away from asking questions. Whether it is something administrative related, advice on your research or how to handle a situation, asking won’t hurt. Knowing who does what and who you can rely on will save you a lot of time in the future.
5. Get a variety of mentors. All mentors had a unique piece of advice because every single one of them had a different career, was exposed to different environments and encountered different challenges. And there lies the lesson: don’t only have one mentor. Have many and a variety. For different situations, different needs and different questions. One might be good to advise on salary negotiations, another one might be able to show how to combine career and family life, and yet another one can be approached about smart career changes. And for the women out there: it’s not like you can only have female mentors, men can make great mentors. The same goes for men: don’t only sit in your boys’ clubs. A woman mentor might have that one missing piece of advice for you to move forward.
Jacqueline Westermann is a researcher with the International Program at ASPI. Her research interests include security in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, German foreign and military policy as well as the role of women in peace and security.
Updated: 13 Dec 2018