A lieutenant colonel provided me with important advice on mentorship when I graduated and earned my commission from Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was set to retire, but his message was clear and concise: “Find a mentor. I cannot do it. You will need to find someone else who can.”
This conversation was one I would have with senior officers throughout the early years of my career.
Army Regulation (AR) 600-100: Army Profession and Leadership Policy defines a mentee as a person of “lesser experience” and a recipient of “advice and counsel.” The mentee must value the “assessment, feedback, and guidance” given by the mentor. The regulation defines the mentor/mentee interaction not as a singular episode, but as a “voluntary developmental relationship” characterized by “mutual trust and respect.”
Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession describes the relationship between mentor and mentee. One description alerts the mentee to the most challenging and frequently misunderstood approach to this relationship: “The developing leader often initiates the relationship.”
The first mentorship obstacle I encountered as a young lieutenant was one of expectations. I expected a senior officer to ask me to be their mentee. Over the years, many of my peers confessed the same. When a young officer is advised to find a mentor, the immediate assumption is that the one pointing out the need is also volunteering to fulfill the need.
I waited years for a more experienced officer to see my need for coaching and development, then decide to mentor me. After years of waiting, I began to wonder why no one wanted me to be their protege. I misunderstood my role and the responsibility I had to initiate the relationship.
Step 1 to becoming a mentee is to request a mentor. This request does not need to be a formal conversation and does not require the words, “Will you be my mentor?” Initiating mentorship can be as simple as asking for career guidance, asking for pros and cons of a duty station or even asking for advice on tactics. Mentorship starts with a question.
In late 2018 at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, I asked a senior officer, not in my chain of command, a tactical question: “Where do you place yourself on the battlefield, and why?” I was genuinely curious and eager to gain insight from him. His answer, coupled with a history I had with the senior officer, led me to desire a mentorship relationship with him.
We never had a formal conversation where I asked him to be my mentor, and he never asked me to be his mentee. However, I felt the liberty to continue seeking advice, and over the years, we developed a relationship based on mutual trust and respect extending to personal and professional growth.
Develop a Relationship
AR 600-100 and ADP 6-22 define the relationship between a mentor and a mentee. ADP 6-22 says it is a relationship existing outside the chain of command, or “outside the superior-subordinate relationship.” The language in this doctrine identifies well the thesis of the second mentee obstacle: Mentorship requires a personal relationship between the mentee and mentor.
A second step to becoming a mentee is to ask the right person, and in turn, to not ask the wrong person. Doctrine defines the parameters as outside the chain of command, because the nature of true mentorship requires the mentor to aid in personal and professional growth. A mentorship relationship of this kind is inappropriate if the senior leader is also the rating or senior rating officer (or NCO) in the mentee’s rating chain. The senior leader would not be able to render a fair and impartial objective evaluation when the evaluated soldier is the senior leader’s protege. It generates the appearance and substance of bias.
Moreover, the mentee should not seek a mentor in someone with whom they do not, or will not, have a relationship. This includes senior leaders they have just met and with whom they will never spend time. ADP 6-22 describes a frequent arrangement where the “relationship extends past the time where one party has left the other’s chain of command.”
In this scenario, the junior soldier enters a unit, builds professional relationships with senior leaders, and only once they depart the formal rating chain is it acceptable to initiate a mentorship attempt with a senior leader. The developing leader may also initiate if the senior leader departs the chain of command before the junior leader does.
The mentee’s goal in a mentorship relationship is to achieve personal and professional growth—to gain competence. A healthy mentorship relationship is one with mutual trust and respect, and honest two-way communication.
Lastly, ADP 6-22 defines the mentor-mentee relationship as voluntary. Therefore, if both parties do not have mutual interest, the relationship will be of little to no value. It is incumbent upon the senior leader to make an honest assessment of their position, time and ability to invest in a potential protege.
A mature, competent, professional leader will know when to refrain and when it is appropriate to enter a mentorship relationship with a developing leader.
For this reason, a near-retirement lieutenant colonel met me and quickly observed my need for a mentor, then promptly affirmed his inability to serve in the role. He was right to do so.
The third mentee obstacle is a matter of quantity and quality: While one mentor is not enough, too many mentors can lead to confusion. ADP 6-22 does not define the quantity of mentors a mentee should have. This is a matter of prudence and work-life balance. ADP 6-22 does, however, describe four types of mentorship: personal, professional, supportive and spiritual.
The third step to becoming a mentee is to define personal goals, understand strengths and weaknesses, and find mentors who can speak to more than one area of life. Mentees who limit themselves to one mentor misunderstand the human factor; one mentor does not have the time and expertise to mentor well in each of the four types of mentorship.
To accommodate the shortcomings of a single mentor, the Army mentorship concept is based upon relationships between senior and junior leaders, between peers, between senior NCOs and junior officers, between civilian leaders and uniformed personnel, and even between chaplains or spiritual leaders and individuals who desire spiritual mentorship.
The four types of mentorship are of themselves not all-inclusive but do well to shape the total soldier. A mentee should attempt to find mentors who can provide growth and competence, understanding that mentors also have their own strengths and weaknesses. The mentee should tailor their expectations to accommodate their mentor.
Checks and Balances
Sometimes mentees are tempted to accept every piece of mentorship and advice from senior leaders. According to ADP 6-22, “proteges carefully consider assessment, feedback, and guidance.” This doctrinal admonition reminds the mentee to weigh and measure guidance in accordance with their own goals and aspirations.
Mentors are not always right. Therefore, having more than one mentor can add healthy layers of checks and balances to the mentorship process.
Army mentorship is organic; it is voluntary. Although there is no doctrinal mandate to serve as a mentee, it is a sign of wisdom to seek and accept mentorship from a more senior leader. To be a mentee is not a sign of weakness or incompetence. Mentees have the unique opportunity to humbly request a mentor, engage in multiple healthy mentorship relationships and gain competence in the profession of arms. A competent Army requires mentees and mentors at every rank, role and echelon.
Capt. Dallas Meachum is an assistant professor of military science, Army ROTC, at the University of Maine. Previously, he commanded a watercraft maintenance company at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He has a master’s degree in transportation and logistics management from American Military University.