Mentorship Can Make a Profound Difference

Mentorship Can Make a Profound Difference

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Army People Strategy from October 2019 states: “Authentic leader engagement is critical to developing cohesive teams and maximizing performance. Counseling demonstrates the leader’s investment in the development of a subordinate. Ensure formal career counseling to each Army professional at key crossroads in his or her career.” Surprisingly, the word “mentorship” does not appear in this strategy. But mentorship can make a profound difference regardless of one’s rank or experience.

I benefited immensely from “authentic leader engagement” throughout my Army career. My father (a Vietnam veteran and career infantryman), commanders and senior NCOs provided me with ample feedback, coaching and tough love. They helped me learn from my mistakes and instilled confidence in me to lead.

Distinct Differences

It is important to clarify the distinct differences between counseling, coaching and mentoring. Army leaders often conflate these integral and often complementary components of leader development. Table 6-3 in Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession lays out the purpose, source, interaction and outcome of each type of leader development.

The purpose of counseling is to “review past or current performance to sustain and improve current or future performance,” the table says. The source of counseling is usually the rater or chain of command. Rated leaders do not select the more senior leaders who counsel them. Counseling normally occurs after a significant training event/deployment, when the rated officer must demonstrate immediate improvement, or at the conclusion of a rating period. The outcome of counseling enables the rated leader to develop “formal … or informal goals for sustainment and improvement.”

The purpose of coaching is to “guide learning or improvement skills,” the table says. The source of coaching is usually an “assigned coach or trainer with special knowledge.” Army units or leaders often assign coaches based upon organizational or readiness goals. This could include topics such as marksmanship, mental resiliency or financial readiness. The outcome of coaching is to identify behaviors for improvement and “higher performance level.”

The purpose of mentoring is to “provide guidance focused on professional or personal growth,” according to the table. Field Manual (FM) 6-22: Leader Development and ADP 6-22 define mentorship as “the voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect.” FM 6-22 defines a mentor as “a leader who assists personal and professional development by helping a mentee clarify personal, professional, and career goals and develop actions to improve attributes, skills, and competencies. A mentee is the individual receiving mentorship.” Unlike counseling and coaching, the mentee seeks out the mentor.

Seeking Guidance

I served as director of the William E. Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, from 2014 to 2019. Our team focused primarily on stewardship of the Cadet Honor Code and system, teaching Officership to West Point seniors, and character education/rehabilitation for the entire Corps of Cadets. This assignment proved both difficult and rewarding. I questioned whether I could fulfill my duties, and I often experienced a lack of self-confidence. As a struggling colonel, I looked outside my chain of command and sought mentorship for the first time.

Now-retired Gen. Frederick Franks commanded VII Corps during operations Desert Shield and Storm, then the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Following his retirement from the Army, Franks served as the West Point Class of 1966 Chair for the Professional Military Ethic from 1999 to 2016. In this role, he taught, coached and mentored generations of West Point cadets and military and civilian faculty, staff and coaches.

I first met Franks in June 2014. He lived in Florida but traveled to West Point every month. Our interactions included face-to-face discussions, teaching Officership together, frequent phone calls and email. I especially treasured our leadership discussions about the Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top engagements at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Franks pushed me to make honest mistakes to learn and grow. He reignited my love for the Army profession. He helped our team accomplish complex missions through his presence, humor and exceptional judgment. As my mentor, Franks patiently listened and provided exceptional feedback. He invested in me and gave me the self-confidence to successfully accomplish my duties.

In 2016, Franks relinquished his chair position and retired; however, he remained engaged with me and the Simon Center. His personal example of selflessness and integrity still inspires me. Of equal importance, Franks showed me how to remain engaged with my students and mentor them as they began their careers as commissioned leaders of character.

Undermining Trust

Today, most senior leaders encourage junior leaders to seek mentors as a means of accelerating professional growth. Unfortunately, some junior leaders seek transactional engagements with senior leaders without fully understanding the positive impact of true mentorship.

I have seen West Point cadets and company grade officers boldly approach senior leaders at social events or via LinkedIn asking for career advice, help with an assignment or for a letter of recommendation. I have seen too many junior leaders place a higher premium on their number of “mentors” rather than the depth of those relationships. Junior leaders sometimes prefer the guidance and attention of a colonel or general officer in lieu of informal feedback and counseling from their chain of command.

This transactional approach to mentorship runs counter to the Army People Strategy’s emphasis that “authentic leader engagement is critical to developing cohesive teams and maximizing performance.”

In today’s Army, senior Army leaders are incredibly visible and often accessible via social media. I have witnessed senior leaders tell incoming junior leaders (who they barely know) that they can contact them anytime with questions or feedback. Senior leaders sometimes dispense advice without ever really getting to know the junior leader.

While not intentional, senior leaders can unwittingly undermine the unit chain of command by dispensing advice that is out of alignment with the mentee commander’s tailored developmental approach for that junior leader.

I have been guilty of listening to young leaders and jumping to conclusions about their chain of command. These transactional practices often hinder leader development and trust. Mentorship takes time, patience and selflessness on the part of the mentor to develop mutual trust and respect.

Dedication Required

To avoid a transactional or episodic relationship, the mentor must be willing and able to dedicate considerable time listening, encouraging, guiding and providing candid feedback. I did not always like Franks’ candid feedback; however, he always gave me a unique perspective and helped me grow professionally. Likewise, the mentee should seek mentorship from more experienced leaders they know and respect. Fewer is usually better.

A commitment to mentorship by both the mentor and the mentee can make a profound difference, regardless of rank or experience.

Col. Scott Halstead, U.S. Army retired, is director of the Association of the U.S. Army Center for Leadership and is the On Leadership editor of ARMY magazine. He retired from the Army in 2021 after serving as an infantry officer and deploying during operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Resolute Support. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 1991.