What a US Army officer can teach you about spotting talented people

One thing we often learn is this: many companies find it incredibly easy to keep hiring and promoting people who either look or act the same way. Army officer Richard Farnell knows one way to be a great leader and mentor: choose to help younger people who don’t look like you.

Farnell emphasized leaders’ responsibility to cast a wide net for mentoring in a Harvard Business Review article called “Mentor People Who Aren’t Like You.” The article struck a chord with us at Ladders because we keep seeing that people don’t understand the value of diversity, which is a huge financial and morale boost to companies.

The tough part: how do you create a diverse team? It’s easier to go down the well-worn path of picking people we relate to. Farnell has a response to that: don’t.

“Telling our protégés that diversity matters won’t change a thing. We must demonstrate our commitment to it by deliberately mentoring people who aren’t like us. Otherwise, we do what’s comfortable, and we risk saying with our actions that we care about cultivating the talents of a homogeneous few. That’s the example we end up setting, the culture we end up building,” Farnell wrote.

You can apply certain takeaways from the article to your career, and use them to inform the way you serve others professionally.

How mentors can serve diverse talent

It’s not always easy for potential mentees to reach out.

“Those who look less like me might find it hard to share their concerns with me or ask for help. They might feel uncomfortable raising their hand if they aren’t sure I will identify with them. And it’s on me, as the leader, to help close that gap,” Farnell wrote.

So what strategies could work once you establish a mentoring relationship with someone whose background is different than yours?

The Association of American Medical Colleges offers advice based on a variety of cited literature, and the steps to establishing these relationships are easy to understand:  “establish trust,” “communicate openly and often;” and “publicly support protégés and help them expand professional networks,”

There are specific ways to provide support.

What mentors get in return

Leaders who decide to mentor people very different from them also benefit: they get a view into perspectives they would otherwise never see.

“Mentoring across social and demographic lines is good for the mentor, as well. It has made me a more empathic, emotionally intelligent leader. I’ve become better at spotting potential outside the usual mold — and better at understanding the obstacles people face when they aren’t part of the dominant group,” Farnell wrote.

In other words, good mentoring reinforces emotional intelligence — a crucial quality for leadership, even, as Farnell learned, in a hierarchy as rigid as the military.

Brent Gleeson, a former Navy SEAL, has said the same: “A leader lacking in emotional intelligence is not able to effectively gauge the needs, wants and expectations of those they lead. Leaders who react from their emotions without filtering them can create mistrust amongst their staff and can seriously jeopardize their working relationships,” Gleeson wrote in an article in Forbes.

Take it from veterans of the Armed Forces: The best leaders don’t look in the obvious places to find talented teammates, and they’re better for it.