The mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most productive ways of learning. Those with mentors are more likely to stay in their career field and have measurable advantages over their peers who receive no mentoring. Soldiers often talk about professional development as a top priority, yet there is no system for facilitating mentorship across the Army.
The Center for the Army Profession and Leadership continues to find in its annual survey of the Total Army, including civilians, that “Develops Others” is the lowest-rated competency in the Army’s leadership requirements model. A mentoring program planned, resourced and supported at the division level will afford junior leaders access to mentors that goes beyond the direct leaders in their chain of command.
Formal or Informal
The Army defines mentorship as the developmental relationship that is shared between a person of greater experience and someone with less experience. Mentoring relationships can be either formal or informal. Formalized mentorship programs are those that are created, facilitated and monitored within the organization. Informal relationships are spontaneous and not sponsored by the organization, and form organically outside the superior-subordinate relationship. At the conclusion of formal relationships, follow-on informal relationships are encouraged.
Multiple studies show that mentees involved in a formal or informal mentorship relationship gain personal and professional benefits. Formal mentoring improves socialization and organizational integration. Informal mentoring has been directly linked to pay increases and promotion rates in the civilian sector. Mentors also experience a sense of fulfillment and increased job performance. The mentor also gains access to the perspectives of subordinate employees. Interactions with the mentee develop the mentor’s interpersonal skills.
Army personnel often confuse leaders inside or adjacent to their rating chain as being responsible for mentorship. People inside or adjacent to us in the rating chain are responsible for our professional development and training. True mentorship needs to exist outside the chain of command influence.
In relationships outside the chain of command, mentors and mentees can be open and honest with one another without influence or organizational pressures. Informal relationships typically form when someone begins to leave an organization and the individuals agree to stay in contact.
One barrier to relationship-forming is when the mentee does not want to inconvenience their potential mentor. In contrast, the mentor may not offer to stay in contact out of fear of appearing arrogant. Also, both parties simply may be too proud or bashful to ask.
Space for Success
The division represents the ideal when it comes to the number of personnel and the diversity for a formal officer mentorship program. First, the division commander’s influence would enhance such a program’s likelihood of success. Multiple brigades mean there are enough similar organizations in different rating chains, so personnel can talk freely with minimal risk. This creates space for the mentor and mentee to have successes not directly influenced by their relationship. The division also has enough people to monitor, manage and fill relationship requirements.
In a division, mentees have the opportunity to continue their development in a low-threat environment. They can ask questions about their future career or life goals that may not nest with their current command team. Switching to a functional area is a good example. Also, the program would expose junior leaders to more people outside their chain of command.
Mentors have the benefit of gaining perspective from subordinate ranks. Leader ideas are frequently isolated from lower-echelon feedback until release. Mentees can provide early insight or unhindered ideas that could improve the mentor’s concepts. Mentors also gain a sense of fulfillment as they see their mentee grow. They also will develop their communication skills, which will directly translate to the professional development of subordinates serving under them.
Battalions and brigades gain shared information through their lower echelons. Mentoring relationships crossing brigade lines provide insight into how similar units are solving problems. This program also has the potential to develop numerous junior leaders outside resource-intensive leader professional development classes.
Through such an officer mentoring program, the division gains an easily executable leadership development program. Tracking and facilitating could be done by a simple collaborative spreadsheet. There are numerous leaders within a division with formal education in organizational psychology and leader development who can greatly enhance the program. The Army’s Command and General Staff Officers’ Course also has dedicated leadership development classes and electives that further enhance the mentoring population. Numerous individuals would volunteer to be program facilitators, preventing any need for formal additional duties.
Conceptually, this program would facilitate relationships, with the highest-ranking mentor being a major. Ideally, mentees would be paired with mentors in a similar MOS, one or two ranks higher, and the mentor would have served in the position the mentee is serving in or will be in. The program would be staffed and filled with volunteers. Soldiers would be matched based on rank, MOS and area of interest with a suitable mentor for one year. Mentors and mentees would be encouraged to meet once every three months for an hour. At the conclusion of the year, continued communication would be encouraged.
The goal of the program is to provide an avenue for individuals to develop numerous formal and informal relationships across the division and throughout the Army as soldiers change stations.
Volunteer program leadership would be responsible for matching personnel, ensuring meetings take place and collecting feedback at the conclusion of the year. Leadership would need to provide templates for meetings and readings to educate both the mentor and mentee on best practices. Meetings (physical or virtual) would be encouraged to take place during the duty day to increase the likelihood of participation.
Mentees and mentors must prepare for each encounter. The mentee needs to present questions and topics ahead of time to the mentor to maximize the utility of the time they have. Also, mentees must take a proactive role in their personal and professional development and provide these goals to the mentor. The mentor has to educate themselves on the needs of their mentee. Mentors will need to be prepared to engage with peer mentors who may be subject-matter experts on the questions being asked.
For example, a mentor may not be able to clearly articulate the transition from their MOS to various functional areas, but a friend of theirs might. Phoning a friend in the interest of developing a mentee is acceptable. Mentors should not be afraid to elevate questions from their mentees to their mentors. Together they must develop trust and rapport to have the hard conversations. This is the key condition for a successful transition from formal to informal mentorship.
The division is where the program should start. The concept could scale to the corps level to expand the mentor ceiling to lieutenant colonel rank. An Army corps would maintain the ability to talk to similar units, share ideas and realize successes separate from their division counterpart. However, for the most part, corps are not co-located with all their brigades, making in-person interaction impossible.
Overall, the program could produce Armywide relationships in a few years. As soldiers change stations, attend military education programs or leave the Army, the mentorship network grows rapidly.
Even if this mentorship program was only sustained in one division for two years, the impact on participants would be significant as all parties gain experience and peer contacts, and use the tools they were given to form additional mentoring relationships.
Maj. Nicholas “Nick” Lund is the chief of future operations in the 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado. Previously, he served as a dismounted troop commander in the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He has a master’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, and is a recent graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.