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Deborah Lee James

23rd Secretary of the Air Force

Washington, D.C.

My career rebounded thanks in large part to zig zagging in my career plans and working with great mentors. Here’s how it all happened for me.

I’ve had a successful 35-year career in national defense, both in the private sector and the government. For the last three years, I was privileged to serve as the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force, responsible for 660,000 people and a budget of nearly $140 billion. Sounds pretty impressive right? I think so, too, but it all started with a great big failure. My career rebounded thanks in large part to zig zagging in my career plans and working with great mentors. Here’s how it all happened for me.

My dream as a young person was to be a diplomat. I took all the right courses in school, pulled top grades, learned a foreign language, and had a great State Department internship one summer. Despite all this, the State Department didn’t offer me a job after I completed graduate school. Needless to say, I was devastated and cried in bed for about 5 days.

On the 6th day, I had to get up because I needed a job. So, I applied elsewhere in the government for a policy position and eventually landed a job as a civilian in the Army. It was not my heart’s desire, but I needed the money, so I threw myself into it with everything I had. After a few months, something remarkable happened. The work was important and I felt a sense of purpose. It was not my original dream, but I felt like I was part of something important and bigger than myself. Here’s what else happened. I had supportive colleagues, and my boss took an interest in my career. He offered encouragement and advice, gave me opportunities to learn and excel and opened doors that led to the next job. You guessed it—that next job was a different defense position, this one on Capitol Hill. By this point, I was hooked, and I have never looked back in the rearview mirror at the State Department!

Over time, I found predominantly male mentors who helped me along the way (not surprising since the military is a predominantly male institution). Sometimes they were older colleagues and sometimes they were supervisors. One time, I attended a lecture and was so impressed with the speaker, I waited afterward to shake hands. I then asked if he would have a cup of coffee with me at his convenience and tell me more. This encounter led to a 6-month rotational assignment in the White House.

My lesson learned on this one: most people will be delighted to give you a half hour over coffee to describe their journey if you just ask. I still count this person as a mentor today even though we drank that first cup of coffee 30 years ago.

Another lesson I learned is it’s important to “pay it forward” and be a mentor to others. That’s why I led the Women’s network at my company, SAIC, when I worked as President of a $2 billion sector. That’s why I started an online mentoring tool, MyVECTOR, when I was Secretary of the Air Force. That’s why I personally led two Lean In Circles, drank a lot of coffee and, most recently, joined the Lean In Advisory Board.

In retrospect, a big failure can be an important positive lesson, especially if you have a mentor to help you learn and rebound from it. Make sure to pass it on to others.