#57 Mentorship

Two weeks ago over in the Army Knowledge On-line (AKO) blogosphere, a question was posted asking, "Where Have All the Mentors Gone?" I posted a response, as did a few others, but the post itself sat relatively idle for about a week.

Then suddenly, as a result of one of the AKO moderators moving the question to a larger forum, it blew up. Now there are 30 or more responses and the post has taken on a new life. I am glad to see that, since the ideas of leadership and mentorship are very closely related. They are not exactly the same, but share many similarities that should be examined in greater depth.

For me, the writing I do here and on AKO, and my approach to leading my small organization is probably much more mentor oriented than it is leader oriented. I see much of my role in the unit to be the passing along of my experiential knowledge to those who will lead the Army long after I choose to retire. (My Orientation). I'm not quite sure how they perceive this relationship though, because it cannot be denied that by positional authority and rank, they sort of don't have a choice as to whether or not they follow my suggestions. They might very well just see my long-winded homily's as nothing more than a boss who likes to hear himself talk. (Their Orientation). And for the sake of literary honesty, they wouldn't be the only ones. Just ask my family!

Since I was the first person to respond on the AKO site, my thoughts and ideas naturally framed some of the replies that followed. Here is what I originally posted:

"Sir -

In my opinion there are a couple of issues with the mentoring 'program' today.

First, successful mentoring happens in an environment where the mentee accepts and finds something in the mentor that they wish to emulate. It really is a bottom up process. If we try to do it from the top down, we will inevitably end up with a young NCO or officer who can't find any similarities between the mentoring they are requesting, and the mentoring they are receiving.

Second, I think that the amount of change that has taken place throughout the Army over the past 8 years has made mentoring difficult. Instead of a senior person knowing - and therefore passing along - what doctrine etc are all about, both groups are doing a significant amount of experiential learning on the fly. That makes knowledge sharing difficult because it's hard to say whether or not that knowledge has permanence, or is situationally and time dependant.

Third, we spend very little time mentoring people instead of positions. Someone who commanded a company or battalion 10 years ago is attempting to mentor someone who commands a company or battalion today. The emphasis is on the position, not the person. Interestingly, if you read most 'leadership' books by retired military however, they spend most of their time dealing with the people side of leadership. I do not mentor a Squad Leader or Platoon Leader, I actually mentor the person who fills that role. We have lost the ability to see each person as a unique individual who requires individual approaches to their leader development.

Fourth, the current generation of young leaders is significantly different from the last few due to the proliferation of technology. As the older generations are trying to catch up with the digital age, the younger generation has already passed them by. They think, act, communicate, process, and interact differently than their predecessors did. A lot of valuable information gets lost in translation.

Finally, I had a boss once who said to me, "The Army never taught me how to mentor someone." While that struck me as an absurd statement at the time, it does show that there is a generational gap between those whose Army experience has been to follow the directives of those above them and let the system tell them how to do things, and the generation of Soldiers who have come of age during a period of rapid change and advancement.

I have found that taking a very personalized approach and actively looking for the differences in interpretation has assisted me in becoming a mentor for others. By reaching out to them, hearing what they are saying, and validating their Army experience, I can then begin to discuss the human being who is trying to come of age in a rapidly changing Army. That is where mentoring can begin."

In response to that, I want to share some of the other thoughts that were posted along the way. They are important and point to some larger issues facing the organization:

Ron wrote:

"My philosophy is that partly because we are at war, partly because our military is becoming more and more "corporate" that we have become less about the traditions, customs and courtesies that make us unique as a profession. Most importantly, the changes are generational. As a Lieutenant in Germany in the mid-90's I and my fellow officers had to go to our BN CDR's house and present our personal cards, we had right-army nights, officer calls, dining in and dining out. My company commander in Bosnia took us out on the berm of the basecamp at night after patrols and smoked cigars with us and metered out his leadership philosophy. Incidentally, he was also the first - and sadly, last - to counsel me in writing on a quarterly basis for another ten years. I did not forget his efforts - which, incidentally - made me a better officer and leader."

Robert wrote:

"Concerning a commitment to mentoring. I would challenge that mentoring is occurring. It's happening every day on the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan. However, I think we should all carefully consider the warning that Jeff provides concerning mentoring people serving in positions and not people as professionals. Of course there is varying types of mentorship based on the need of the mentee. I assume the thread we are running is tied to job selection, promotion potential and leadership development. This should consume a majority of the mentors time...assisting mentees in enhancing self awareness and identifying where they can best contribute. I think most senior folks spend a good deal of time engaged in this on an informal level and most commonly when the mentee reaches out. I'm a believer that it works and should be fostered, not formalized, across the force."

Joyce wrote:

"I enjoyed reading all the comments and agree with the views presented. Why? Because we are probably all from the same generation - Baby boomers! The two to three generations that followed us have different values and concerns. No matter what, leadership responsibilities do include coaching and guiding the younger members of their team or unit. Why aren't leaders doing their job? (PS: I am a civilian and do not have military experience. I always thought the military leaders were the ones who set the example for us civilians.)"

Richard wrote:

"I think that all leaders are mentors whether they realize it or not, our actions or lack thereof set examples for others to follow. I believe I am mentoring my peers, superiors and subordinates every day I am very approachable and willing to assist in any way I can. I am approaching my 19th year of service, during these 19 years I have been privileged to work with/for good and bad leaders alike, their actions/words have been something I have carried along the way during my career."

Richard wrote:

"I'm wondering if perhaps part of the problem is a difference of perspective between mentor and mentee. For example, is the mentee consciously aware that he or she is being mentored? Do they have a different vision of what mentorship is? Likewise, could some mentors have a different definition of mentorship? One might consider technical development to be mentorship while another focuses on personal development."

Tamara wrote:

"First that there is no longer a clear definition of what mentorship is. The responsibilities and expectations for both mentor and mentee are fuzzy at best. As someone else said earlier, it's lost in translation between generations.

Second that the younger generation is so in tuned with email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, the list goes on...that they don't know how to interact with the real people standing right next to them. I see this with my own kids. They've got their buddy sitting right next to them and rather than just talking to one another, they're sending text messages back and forth on their cell phones. (OOO they get mad when I confiscate the cell phones for using them that way. I've stolen their "coolness factor".) I think that this is also part of the problem with our suicide rates as well. The younger leaders don't know how to properly read body language, so they can't spot issues that need to be addressed quickly."

Eric wrote:

"The first thing we all need to do is define mentorship. I think a lot of people mix mentorship with leadership."

Jessica wrote:

"Mentoring is a special bond between a mentor and their mentee. This is a unique and special relationship because in order to become a mentor, you have to be chosen. I believe a person can only realistically mentor three people at any one time – anymore than that and you detract from the value of the mentor/mentee relationship. A mentor does not have to be from your same branch or organization (it’s often helpful if they are not a part of your organization so they can give fresh insight). To be an accomplished mentor, it takes time, effort, and commitment.

If you ask many of our junior NCOs and officers, they will tell you they’ve never been mentored. It seems to be a common theme. However, when you ask for more details, you discover, they haven’t initiated a mentor/mentee relationship. It is a bottom up driven function. Again, you must be chosen."

Here then are some of my follow-up thoughts. The Mentor/Mentee relationship is first and foremost, a bottom-up process. The subordinate seeks out a senior whom they believe possesses qualities, traits and abilities that they would like to emulate. Importantly, however, it must be the senior who creates the opportunity for that to happen. I have to open - and leave open - my door for a subordinate to knock on when they are ready. My responsibility is to create the opportunity, theirs is to seize it. I would also contend that in many cases the subordinates willingness to seize that opportunity will be mostly based upon their interpretation of me as a person, not because of position. This again, seems to highlight the absolutely critical aspect of 'whole person' development. They see me as more than a position, they are seeing me a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a leader, a follower etc.

Second, I believe that accessability and day-to-day interaction within the organization are critical. As Richard asked in a quote above, "Is the mentee consciously aware that they are being mentored? Do they have a different vision of what mentorship is?" This is an extremely important point, because I might believe that I am mentoring all the time, and if they have no awareness of it, then it might have significantly less value than I think it does. The same is true if they have a different expectation of what mentorship looks like. Again we go back to the idea of the human factors of OODA. My Orientation, and theirs must be at least similar with regard to the developmental environment. I must be aware that I might be perceived as a mentor - and then accept responsibility for protecting the relationship, and they must also be aware that mentoring is taking place and help me create the environment that best suits their ability to receive it.

Finally, it appears that I'm not the only one recognizing that generational differences have a lot to do with successful mentoring processes. I happen to think that this particular generation is significantly different from the preceding 2, but also believe that the large gap that exists right now will slowly close until the next hugely impactful sociological or technological advancement. Historical events such as the Industrial Revolution and the movement away from agrarian society, electricity, women's suffrage, the automobile, mass media etc all create generational bubbles that impact one generation significantly. Over the next 2 or 3 however that change becomes muted as those changes move from novelty to routine. I think it will be interesting to see how leadership and mentorship are affected when all 3 generations who serve in the Army grew up in some form of the digital age. Although I will certainly be too old to be aware of it then, I have a sneaky suspicion that when they are all technologically equal, they will still be looking to be mentored by those who share a common value system. At the end of the day, it will still be our need as human beings for personal growth and affirmation that will drive the Mentor/Mentee realtionship.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. A comment from a young Sergeant I know:

    DG says:

    "To be honest, it might be that I search out mentors, but you have taught me a thing or two bout Soldiering females lol. SGT E. has been one of my mentors for years. It might be a matter of these younger Soldiers being receptive in the first place. Out of ten Soldiers, you have three sponges for knowledge, five that are strickly 'yes, Sergeant' and two bricks that don't absorb anything. The first three are the ones that advance to team leader and leaders tend to feed into them b/c its easier and less time comsuming. The seven have the potential to be motivated the moment you show them its worth it, you gain their trust and their respect. I have also noticed a lot in our younger Soldiers, the lack of regard for rank if they do not respect the person. Like that Major said, we are losing a lot of traditions, customes, and courtesies. As a junior NCO I see where they are coming from, but on the other hand the structure that they challenge has won wars and secured our freedom."