By Jeroen Verhaeghe
One of the key responsibilities of a leader in any military organization is the development of the next generation of leaders[i]. This responsibility is crucial because the military grows its leaders from within rather than recruiting managers from the outside. However, leader development is not as easy as it sounds. Leaders have a multitude of tasks, from consistently accomplishing their missions, fulfilling all administrative requirements, keeping their supervisor and family simultaneously happy, honing professional skills, and meeting the daily short-term needs of those in their charge. However, there is one more crucial piece to the puzzle: developing the next generation of leaders.
Leaders must prepare the organization for the future by ensuring there is a next generation of leaders who, eventually, will take their place. This development usually occurs at the organizational or unit level by means of professional development programs, coaching, and performance evaluations. Equally, it occurs through personal mentorship, which will be the focus of discussion throughout this article.
The subject of mentoring is often treated informally, if at all, and no military that I know of has published doctrine or written reference on how to execute it[ii]. Therefore, among practitioners (especially in junior ranks and due to lack of experience) there may be some apprehension to engage in a relationship like this because of the uncertainties on how to effectively engage in the practice. This article aims to dispel some of that apprehension by describing the attributes of a mentoring relationship and simultaneously provide concrete recommendations for all parties involved.
Again, since few written references exist, this article is also an open invitation for discussion; I am acutely aware of the limitations of my own perspective. Open discussion can only further the common understanding on the topic and we all stand to benefit from that.
Admittedly, I am no better placed than anyone else to discuss this subject. Like so many of my peers, I have witnessed mentorship, I have been mentored, and I have tried to mentor. I have seen good and bad examples and been witness to wisdom imparted by world-class leaders and teachers. The following thoughts are the outcome – for now – of that process.
Simply stated, the mentoring relationship I will discuss here can be described as a long-term personal/professional relationship in which the more experienced party helps the junior party in their self-development, often by giving advice, providing perspective, or triggering reflection. In the words of Michael Bungay Stanier, it is about coaching for development as opposed to coaching for performance. I will break this down further in the following paragraphs.
First, a mentoring relationship is personal. Like a friendship, a mentor/mentee relationship happens because two people agree that they want the relationship to happen.
Therefore, it cannot be officially imposed or officiated. If an organization were to attempt to construct these relationships, it may inadvertently generate a check the box mentality with junior leaders on the hunt for a mentor (or vice-versa) in the months or weeks leading up to annual evaluations, promotion boards, etc. Mentoring (or having a mentor) is and should be optional! If somebody feels they have no need for a stable, trusted, long-term professional helpline – while we may recognize this as a loss – it is ultimately their choice.
Mentoring activities are informal activities for several reasons. First, they are not, and should not, have anything to do with counseling sessions, evaluation reports, After Action Reviews, etc. Second, a mentorship relationship may naturally occur outside the chain of command. The climate within the organization may not support open and frank conversation, or the person may be uncomfortable expressing their true desires. Third, there is often little time for mentoring in the margins of a scheduled evaluation. Lastly, the subject of a mentoring discussion is usually decided by the junior partner in the relationship, the mentee, based on their needs.
A mentoring relationship does not have to be exclusive; we are not talking about marriage here. A mentee can have several mentors. Equally, a mentor can give regular advice to more than one person. Additionally, It does not have to be a permanent relationship, although ideally, it is long-term. This is an additional reason why it does not fit within the framework of counseling or evaluation; both take place in the temporary context of a command relationship. As you advance in your profession, an older mentor who greatly assisted in your development at the start of your career, may simply no longer meet your development needs. Conversely, reaching a certain age, rank, or level of experience does not mean that all of a sudden you know all there is to know. We will always need mentors.
Most of the time, the relationship is consciously initiated bottom-up rather than top-down, although normally after an informal candidacy by the mentor-to-be. When the opportunity presents itself, leaders can show willingness to mentor younger colleagues, and make themselves available. This step is absolutely vital in the process of beginning a mentor/mentee relationship[iii] . However, the mentee decides to initiate the relationship by asking for advice. In the end, the order in which the initial steps are taken is not important. In many cases, it manifests gradually on a sliding scale from just being colleagues to being mentor/mentee, rather than flipping an on-off switch to activate a mentoring relationship.
According to some, there is an ethical risk when it comes to mentoring subordinates, and they claim that mentoring should only happen once there is no longer a command relationship between the two people involved (when one or both have moved on to a new position/job/location). This method as a safeguard against the relationship becoming clouded by the troubles of day-to-day business and the friction that could potentially arise. I acknowledge that the risk may be there, but believe these instances are few and far between.
In many cases, the mentor is older than the mentee and holds a higher rank. However, the crucial difference is not age or rank but the fact that the mentor is more experienced. When we start out our career, these three attributes seem to evolve in step with each other, but the older we get, the more often we see situations where that is no longer the case.
The mentor-mentee relationship is built around mutual trust. By simply asking for advice or help, the mentee is vulnerable. For the relationship to be successful, the mentor also needs to show vulnerability by sharing personal experiences, previous success, and prior failure. Since we often learn the most from our failures, the mentor may likely have more insights to share from these experiences. However, sharing those vulnerabilities takes a special level of trust. Through this mutual trust, mentee and mentor can discuss a wide variety of topics, far beyond the current job and its challenges. This includes formal education opportunities, leadership dilemmas, career planning, work-life balance, etc.
Because everyone’s career path is different, actively engaging in mentoring relationships can eventually lead to a wide network, with the potential to generate advice or information about parts of the organization one has no experience in. This benefit is not the purpose at all of mentoring, but an added side effect. We should never set out to collect a “portfolio of mentors” to whom we can reach out whenever a question arises. A mentor is much more than a helpdesk.
Many leaders will only ever have one mentor while some will have a few over the course of a career, in sequence or simultaneously. The truly lucky ones will get to be a mentor themselves, as it needs to be clear that both parties in a mentoring relationship learn from the experience. Not only can mentoring be a very fulfilling activity, but being a mentor is just as much a learning experience as being mentored. To paraphrase Joseph Joubert, “to mentor is to learn twice.” One cannot give sound advice without first having a clear idea on the matter, and the latter usually requires reflection and sometimes even study. On another level, a thoughtful mentor will probably think twice before jumping in and providing direct advice on the matter at hand, and also consider other methods to help the mentee, such as providing another perspective or triggering the mentee’s own reflection. All this thought put into mentoring will naturally benefit the mentor.
In order to create the conditions for a truly trusting relationship, the relationship should be discreet and minimally advertised. Having one-on-one conversations in a quiet setting also sets the conditions for deep reflection. Next to being discreet, mentoring relationships are often implicit, especially at the outset. The words mentor and mentoring may never be mentioned, nor do they need to be.
I will now provide some final thoughts and advice on getting started.
Potential mentor: be approachable and available. Be forthcoming with your professional knowledge, be open about your own self-development, and mention that last great book/article/blog post you read. You can volunteer advice, but allow the mentee to chart their own course. Eventually, the mentee will decide whether this relationship is worth their time.
Potential mentee: approach your potential mentor with a single specific request for advice to test the water. Thank them for their time, whether or not it turns out to be the last time you ask their advice. Be prepared to work hard, the best mentor is not the person doing your thinking for you, but the person who makes you think.
Organizational leader: you cannot and should not impose mentorship relationships. However, you can shape the circumstances by communicating the importance of it, by providing space, and by setting the example.
Lastly, since these are personal relationships, there is no one single correct way of doing this. What works for one person may not work for someone else, and everyone interested in trying this can build their own style of how to conduct a mentoring relationship. There are plenty of great online sources out there to help you along. From the Green Notebook, Harvard Business Review, 3 x 5 Leadership, The Army Leader, or The Field Grade Leader are just a few great resources to help get you started. All of the above resources have search engines: enter “mentor” and start learning. Some articles you find may apply a different understanding of mentoring, and you will come across related concepts like coaching, advocating, counseling, etc. This does not have to stop you from learning as a potential mentor, mentee, or organizational leader.
Jeroen Verhaeghe is a Belgian infantry lieutenant colonel with previous postings in Belgium (nationally and with NATO) and as an exchange officer in the United States. He has deployed to Kosovo and to Iraq, and is currently assigned to the Belgian Defence College as an instructor in land operations. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Belgian Defence College, Army, or Ministry of Defence.
[i] This is not to say that leader development only happens in the military. The military is unique however in that growing junior leaders in preparation for more senior positions is usually the only way in which senior leader positions are filled, in stark contrast to civilian organizations which may develop their top managers internally but just as well – or more often – recruit them from outside the organization.
[ii] Any documentation to the contrary would be greatly appreciated by the author.
[iii] However vital this step is, it can still be an unconscious one on behalf of the mentor-to-be, simply because they are approachable and seem knowledgeable.