The Army’s No. 1 priority and commodity is its people, and the success of the service depends on its ability to ensure the appropriate development and professionalism of its people.
There are people who are admired for their hard work, enthusiasm and drive toward achieving success. While it is true that hard work breeds success for an individual, we often overlook the individuals who are behind these high achievers, providing needed guidance and support. Regardless of the level of success anyone has, everyone gets some sort of motivation or follows proven principles laid down by another who they look up to as mentors, sponsors or both.
Leaders must know the similarities and differences between mentorship and sponsorship, which are vital to the development and transformation from junior to senior leaders in their preparation and growth for advanced positions and increased responsibilities. Those in leadership positions should know when and where to implement them.
In a mentorship relationship, a mentor allows the individual to see themselves and identify their own strengths and weaknesses. A mentor also provides insight about where the individual is and where they should go.
The relationship is bilateral, or a two-way street, where sometimes the roles are reversed. It is not necessarily based on rank or position. Each individual has certain skill sets from which the other can learn.
Most mentor-mentee relationships may or may not last, and an individual can have mentors who are not necessarily in the same occupation, organization or position. The mentees do not have to be special rising talents; anybody can have or be a mentor. Mentors provide the individual insights on what steps to take in their career and give attention generously to the individual. An individual can have as many mentors as possible they can learn from or whose guidance they can follow. Mentorship is necessary but insufficient for advancement of a talented soldier’s career.
Unlike a mentor, a sponsor must actively advocate for a rising talent in their organization. Sponsors are senior members of an organization and advocates for a high-potential talent. Sponsorship and advocacy for high-potential talent are ways to diversify top leadership.
The primary responsibilities of a sponsor include: believing in the rising talent, pushing for their promotion and opportunities, and protecting them from competitors in the organization. A sponsor identifies a high-potential individual and maintains a relationship that enables the sponsor to endorse the individual for promotions and opportunities.
The sponsor invests themselves in the individual’s career vision and can assist in building the individual’s network connections for career advancement. They identify those who deserve to move up and when to move up without being influenced by favoritism or nepotism.
It is faulty to sponsor only those with shared race, culture or background.
One downside to sponsorship is bias in picking a protege, according to a February 2019 Harvard Business Review article by Julia Taylor Kennedy and Pooja Jain-Link headlined “Sponsors Need to Stop Acting Like Mentors.” This hinders leadership diversity in the long run and must be avoided.
AIM for Advancement
A great example of where mentors and sponsors have roles to play is the U.S. Army Human Resources Command’s Assignment Interactive Module (AIM) marketplace. The AIM marketplace platform is a Web-based information system that provides data to help advance the activities of selecting the best leaders for the right positions at the right time.
The development and professionalism of officers and units are necessary for the success of the Army. It is important for leaders to know the differences between the two roles to appropriately implement any, or both, when necessary, especially in the AIM marketplace.
The AIM marketplace uses a talent management-based approach to allow direct interaction between units and officers. Because the Army must grow its senior leaders internally, there is a need for systematic management of soldiers’ talents to fill appropriate roles to select the best leaders. The information that users upload to the AIM marketplace provides command teams with a clearer picture of their preference for recruitment. The information includes an AIM resume with soldiers’ self-professed talents and experience that are not on their evaluation reports and record briefs.
Listening Is Key
In addition to planning career moves and being an important team member, listening to mentors is a key factor in achieving a successful Army career. It is the responsibility of senior leaders to encourage junior soldiers to communicate with them about their career choices and seek necessary advice.
Mentors must be available, be candid and identify strengths and weaknesses. Mentors must follow up to ensure success. They must be available for career development and give feedback on choices. In the AIM marketplace, mentors can provide guidance on assignments available and potential career paths, and recommend future training requirements.
There are opportunities in the military where sponsorship is important. Opportunities come when individuals are submitted for military award recognitions. Sponsorship also can occur in preparation for job transitions. Sponsors also can identify research opportunities in national and international presentations; who should be on the team requires sponsorship. Sponsors may advocate through email or by phone, similar to letters of recommendation and letters of endorsement where they communicate on behalf of the applicant on why the applicant should be selected for the position(s) they are applying for.
Additionally, the AIM resume allows for more information not found in typical board files. It also allows listing of sponsors’ contact information as references.
There are rules of engagement within the AIM marketplace, which implements career guidance and support. Officers are encouraged to review these rules before they indicate which units they prefer to enable them to identify positions that suit their proposed career trajectory.
Officers also are encouraged to upload their resume to the AIM platform to improve their chances of being selected by units. Units then will be able to identify officers’ skills and make an appropriate decision that suits the individual officer’s proposed career trajectory. Soldiers can utilize the “Marketplace 101” feature, which provides guidelines and instructions required to maximize the utilization of this tool.
Maximizing opportunities happens before the AIM marketplace opens. In fact, it happens years earlier. To be competitive, seek opportunities, take tough jobs and challenging positions, work hard and be proactive in looking for mentors and sponsors.
An individual must be competent and a strong member of their current team. They should identify future jobs, even two positions beyond where they are now. Individuals should not limit themselves to networking only with officers in their field; they must reach out to civilian leaders, enlisted leaders, even those who are not in the military.
Leaders often do not know who all the rising talents are. Individuals must let their leaders know about themselves and what they are doing. Individuals should make it easy for someone to sponsor and mentor them by being proactive and highlighting what they do and what their team does.
They also must be honest about their strengths and weaknesses and be vocal about their future aspirations.
There are two sides to the AIM marketplace. One side is the individual who is interviewing for a job, and the other side is where unit leaders are interviewing individuals for vacant positions.
Individuals competing for a position should communicate consistently. They also must be transparent with their selections and honest with the unit on their preferences.
Furthermore, an individual should not wait until they are in the marketplace to network. They must reach out to senior leaders who know them, and identify those who should be in their references so senior leaders can endorse them.
This does not happen overnight. An ongoing relationship must exist before they can be endorsed by senior leaders. The individual must be honest with themselves and about what jobs they want. They should check the AIM portal routinely when the market opens, and not be complacent.
When they have identified which jobs they want, they must actively contact the senior leaders from the organization they will be interviewing with. They should not assume they will be contacted unless they are proactively engaged.
This is not the time to be an introvert. Be proactive, talk to people, get a gauge on where they are on the unit’s ranking.
Most importantly, do not take the process personally. When one door closes, another opens.
Everyone can benefit from mentorship and sponsorship throughout their careers. There are also overlaps for mentoring and sponsoring. Utilizing both is important, because mentorship is not enough. Sponsorship, in addition to mentorship, is critical for successful career advancement.
Understanding sponsorship as a distinct professional relationship can help leaders make more informed decisions about using sponsorship as a deliberate career-advancement strategy.
Mentors guide soldiers through what they must do to reach the top, while sponsors invest in a potentially talented soldier and want that soldier to earn their investment in them. In an organization like the Army, soldier success hinges on appropriate professionalism and strategic improvement of officers and units.
Additionally, leaders are not limited to just mentoring and sponsoring junior officers. They must increase their span of influence throughout the spectrum of different careers by including enlisted troops, civilians, those not yet in the military and even sometimes those who are leaving the military.
To access the AIM Marketplace, go to: https://aim.hrc.army.mil/ (Common Access Card required).
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Lt. Col. Amelia Duran-Stanton is chief of the Ready and Resilient Integration Branch and deputy surgeon at Headquarters, U.S. Army Installation Management Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. She has deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. She holds a doctor of philosophy in postsecondary and adult education, a doctor of science in orthopedics and a master’s in physician assistant studies.
Lt. Col. Sharon Denson is allied health policy officer for Clinical Policy Services, U.S. Army Medical Command, and deputy physician assistant consultant to the Army Surgeon General. She has deployed twice to Iraq. She holds a doctor of medical science in physician assistant medicine and a master’s in physician assistant studies.