It’s disconcerting to hear that there are an estimated 300 active serial killers in the U.S. That’s part of the chilling premise of the popular, sometimes violent new TV show, The Following. Serial killers, led by a psychopath, manage to find a way to communicate with each other, and recruit other killers into their network. This dark, fast-paced crime show is an unexpected place to discover insights about the benefits of mentoring, yet we can. This column is co-written with LaRae Quy, an undercover and counterintelligence FBI agent for 25 years. Mike Weston, a smart, young FBI agent sees an opportunity to learn from an unwilling mentor, Ryan Hardy, played by Kevin Bacon. Hardy, a long retired FBI agent, agrees to help track down the escaped serial killer that he arrested, Joe Carroll.
Back in 2003, Hardy headed the investigation that led to the arrest. Now someone else is in charge, and investigations involve new technology. After being stabbed in the heart by the killer, Hardy lost his mojo and stayed out of sight. Consequently, many on the FBI team initially see Hardy as a liability. Yet he knows more about this psychopath than anyone else.
Tip One: Seek out the mentor who knows the most about the exact thing you most want to learn, even it it means overlooking distracting behavior. For Weston, Hardy represents a double win. He is an expert in interpreting the behavior of serial killer, and he has extraordinary, if sometimes unorthodox investigative skills. Hardy doesn’t waste time on words of encouragement—only words of wisdom as he helps Weston navigate his way through the sordid thinking of serial killer Joe Carroll.
Tip Two: Ask your mentor to not only confirm your strengths but also help you hone them. FBI agents come out of the Academy with an awareness of many of their strengths, but a mentor will help you finely hone the specific qualities of those strengths so they will be predictable, reliable, and consistent. This is key to surviving environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Hardy’s job is to help Weston clarify the strengths he will need to hunt serial killers.
Tip Three: Expect that honing your strengths under a mentor’s eye will feel uncomfortable sometimes. If Hardy does not move Weston into his discomfort zone, Hardy is not doing his job. It does not take outstanding intelligence to be an expert; instead, it requires a willingness to move beyond the complacency that often accompanies a comfort zone. Finding the sweet spot at the edge of Weston’s current competence is the key to learning skills fast. Weston should expect Hardy to move him to that place where he doesn’t feel comfortable but not so bad he wants to quit.
Tip Four: Expect skill mastery to involve these steps of deliberative practice, which is different than training. During Weston’s rigorous four months of training at the FBI Academy, he would learn that it’s not inherited talent that determines how good he would become at something, but rather how hard he was willing to work. Deliberate practice requires specific and sustained efforts if agents want to achieve mastery in their area of expertise. For example, a new agent like Weston would not be an expert in firearms when he arrived at the Academy.
To achieve skill mastery requires 1) incremental steps designed to specifically improve performance with the help of a mentor; 2) specific goals, such as shooting a bulls eye target at twenty-five yards; 3) intentionally honing the strength by requiring a tighter grouping within the bulls eye target; 4) continually moving the agent out of their comfort zone. This approach benefits anyone who wants to hone a skill.
Tip Five: Consistently supporting your mentor and showing that you value his advice, even when he makes you uncomfortable as you learn, often causes the mentor to gradually value your presence more and give you more guidance. Hardy is no longer in charge of the investigation and while others are skeptical of Hardy’s capabilities, Weston is among the first to show Hardy respect when Hardy joins the team. Weston seeks expert feedback in simple, precise responses so he can quickly make adjustments in his thinking and behavior. Conversely, Hardy does not give too much feedback all at once, and though Hardy seems emotionally distant at times, the tension in their relationship is not strained because Hardy doesn’t overwhelm Weston with too much theory or information that interferes with learning.
Tip Six: The more your mentor feels he want to redeem himself or to grow in mastery and reputation for another reason, and thus want to pull out all the stops to achieve the goal, the more accelerated your learning is likely to be with him. Hardy feels like a broken man and sees his path to emotional recovery in stopping the killer and the network of killers Carroll is recruiting. Since some of the serial killers in the hidden network can appear quite normal, it’s vital for the FBI team to be vigilant to look, not for just who appears to be acting guilty but for anomalies.
When FBI agents begin an investigation… see the rest of the nine tips at my Quotable and Connective column over at Forbes.