Mentorship: Cross-Component Leader Development

Guest post by XO of XOs

Knowledge diffusion and leader development in the Army is at best, a slapdash effort.  You finish the appropriate schooling level–maybe rotating through a leadership position, or not–and then get dropped into your newest assignment.  Primary Staff, Command, on occasion the officer in charge of the officer (I had one as of those as a senior major and it was GLORIOUS).  You, in general, don’t have the foggiest idea how to do your new job.  You stumble, you figure things out as you go, you succeed and fail.

(Right now there is some young Field Grade screaming at his computer, ‘I KNEW EXACTLY WHAT I WAS DOING!’  I’d ask that young officer to take a deep breath and ask themselves if that was REALLY true.  If it was, congratulations.  You’re the outlier.  Go find another cloud to yell at, you loon. THE XO IS UNPHASED.)  Remember your first leadership principle: Know yourself and seek self-improvement.

So you muddle through as best you can, getting various degrees of on the job training, counseling and feedback–which is directly tied to the mentoring skills of your rater–and hope your peers aren’t idiots and that your rater will actually listen to you and develop you, rather than try to force you down the path they went.  With luck, you have a rater who is as vested in your growth and development as you are and peers who are worth discussing issues with.  If not, congratulations, you’re on your own.  You’ll muddle through, hopefully finding a path which is the best for you, your unit, your career, and whatever family and friends you’ve accumulated along the way.  Chances are more than slight that you will stumble, screw up, and make mistakes which impact your career, your organization, and your family.

Mentors help.  A mentor can provide advice, guidance, a safe space to vent.  In some cases, a mentor can run a little interference for you with your boss.  A mentor does not need to be a substantive subject matter expert in your particular field of work.  I would posit, for example, that the majority of field grade officers, for instance, could provide quality mentorship to a company grade officer.  Officership is officership; the challenges of leading, of managing a staff or a unit, of command, are universal.  Particulars may differ, but the basics remain.  The ability to talk openly and honestly with someone with the experience and background to offer advice and guidance, but who is outside of the command is invaluable.  Juniors could openly seek career advice, discuss their interactions with higher headquarters, seek better ways of doing business, and be able to vent about their concerns to an interested but uninvolved third party.

An idea I have to help address this gap, especially for active duty members seeking mentors, is for senior Reserve or Guard officers and NCOs to spend a drill weekend as mentors to junior officers and NCOS.  These would be low key, no fuss events.  The Reserve Component members would spend some time with their mentee, observing, listening, and offering the benefits of their experience.

A prime example would be a post-Battalion Command U.S Army Reserve (USAR) lieutenant colonel (LTC), spending battle assemblies and an annual training (AT) with an active duty company commander.  The LTC would begin the process by communicating with the captin’s rater, getting the rater’s input as to the captain’s strengths and weaknesses.  Over the space of a couple of decades of service–which will likely include several years of active duty and deployment time–the example LTC will have plenty of background and military education to draw on to provide wisdom to the younger officer. An officer of 20 or so years’ experience would have the judgement and wisdom to know when things were ‘right’, when things were ‘wrong’, and if necessary, reach out to the rater to provide insight–but not at the cost of damaging the mentor/mentee relationship.  Reserve component senior leaders also bring the perspective of someone who has extensive work experience outside the military and can thus bring an outside the service perspective.

This guidance and mentorship–provided at no risk to the mentees’ evaluations–would be especially helpful to minority service members–particularly if efforts were made to pair senior minority members with juniors.  Strong mentorship programs increase retention of minority members by up to 38%, which leads to greater representation in senior ranks.[1]  With minority officer promotion rates lagging behind white males to the O-4 level, a mentorship program which helps address promotion and retention could have substantial long term impacts on retention of minority service members across a career.

The genesis of this article stems from my experiences on Twitter, where I have been sought out repeatedly by officers and NCOs, from multiple services, for advice and mentorship.  Clearly there is a demand–at least in some circles–for an LTC who will listen and provide experience based advice, or even just lend a friendly ear.  A more formalized version of in-person mentorship would be more effective than a direct message saying ‘Hey, Sir, can I bother you?’


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About the author: The XO of all XOs is a long serving USAR Military Intelligence officer with prior service as an enlisted infantryman and military police soldier.  His views are his own and may be tainted by decades of cynicism–he has been doing this longer than you’ve been alive.  He can be contacted via Twitter, @XOofallXOs


About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.


Endnotes:

[1] Conboy, K., & Kelly, C. (2016). What evidence is there that mentoring works to retain and promote employees, especially diverse employees, within a single company?

Retrieved September 3, 2018 from Cornell University, ILRSchool site: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/student/116

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