Welcome to our first guest post of 2017!  This week’s guest author is Garret Gatzemeyer, an Army intelligence officer and a professor of history at the United States Military Academy. The post examines the parallels, as well as, the stark contrasts between what mentorship looks like in academia and in the military. How can we learn from the best practices in other circles and bring them over to us?

Do you have a story to share? We’ve had dozens of guest authors already. We’re sure you have a lesson learned to pass along, a mentorship experience to reflect upon, or a technique or style that has been a game changer for you and others. Join the professional development revolution! Please don’t hesitate to reach out and start a conversation that may spark a transformation.

A few years ago I won an all-expenses-paid trip to Lawrence, Kansas courtesy of the Army’s Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS) program. My purpose was to learn how to think big in a disciplined way, but I picked up a few other lessons along the way too, such as the consequences of visiting Allen Fieldhouse without ear plugs on a rowdy night. More significant lessons came from my immersion in a different professional culture.

Like the readers of this blog, the scholars with whom I worked valued mentorship. However, my experience as a mentee in the humanities differed significantly from my earlier experiences in the Army and I’ve sought to bring those lessons back to the military at large. Part of being a profession is our self-policing and constant desire to improve. Mentorship is one clear area where we still have major room for improvement, as my time in academia made undeniably clear.

Between academia and the Army, I found that the fundamental difference in mentoring came down to the duration of mentor relationships. In the military, short assignments mean officers typically spend one or two years together before going their separate ways. In contrast, graduate students, particularly doctoral candidates, and their advisors spend at least five to seven years in close contact during coursework and dissertation-writing.

In academia, mentoring relationships endure beyond the hooding, too. Many junior scholars continue depending upon their former advisors for advice, letters of recommendation, criticism, and more. Mentors and mentees regularly collaborate on projects, and scholarly genealogies link their individual works in perpetuity. These durable connections incentivize long-term investment in the professionalization of junior scholars.

Quantity (time) is a key difference, but many qualitative distinctions exist too. For example, academia’s professional development system emphasizes the value, potential, and agency of its most junior members. My advisors were not focused on using us to complete short-term job requirements, nor did they assume our abilities to contribute were inherently capped by our positions or age. Instead, they sought to locate and nurture our long-term potential as scholars. My professors recognized that graduate students need lots of grooming, but that they are capable of generating original ideas to which others should listen. The best Army mentors encourage their protégés in similar ways, though my experience suggests this is more the exception than the norm in the military.

A second qualitative difference derives from the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship. In the military, hierarchy and formality pose obstacles to these relationships. Hierarchy exists in the academic world too, but it is usually less rigid and formal. In my experience, professors generally saw budding colleagues when they looked at graduate students. Perhaps this is a result of our “up-or-out” promotion system, but military mentors seem to rarely treat their protégés like future-peers. Crucial personal relationships between mentors and mentees could be closer and more open if we could change this paradigm.

My advisor was more willing and able to discuss issues over a beer after hours than any of my military mentors, and it mattered. Mutual respect and trust developed through these informal interactions. We also got beyond talking about professional development timelines, much to the benefit of my abilities as a scholar.

These observations reflect an ideal model of mentorship to which academia adheres. This model greatly differs from the military’s in many experiences. The military’s can be understood in terms of industrial-era personnel management in that it emphasizes administrative record-keeping, rules, policies, and procedures. In the humanities, a guild system predominates in which mentorship occurs within a master-apprentice framework that prioritizes intensive individual contact.

My advisor took ownership of my development because it was a central responsibility of his profession, not just because that’s what the administration demanded. His approach differed from student to student depending upon our distinctive needs. His goal was not to weed out students or to employ us to specific ends, but to cultivate other masters of the historian’s craft. Simply put, he acted on the knowledge that our professional futures were bound together, each reflecting on the other.

As leaders we cannot import academia’s model wholesale, nor should we. The Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy’s needs are all very different than the ivory tower’s. However, I recognize that I can change my own practices as a mentor to include the academic model’s best characteristics.

Many changes boil down to perspective. Working from Ghandi’s admonition that our beliefs eventually become our actions and habits, I am altering the way I look at the leaders for whom I am responsible. I seek to view subordinates as competent fellow professionals at a different stage of development, and as potential peers. I cannot (and should not) remove all the obstacles to close relationships that protocol and rank impose, but I can be cognizant of how those obstacles influence interactions, and minimize them where possible. I seek spaces to interact informally with my mentees. I also seek to cultivate mutual trust and respect by proactively building them from my side of the relationship.

In my mentoring interactions, I am getting away from the typical “career timeline talk” everyone has heard too many times. Instead, my mentees and I focus on hard skills and on ways to think about problems we face in our profession. Counseling forms will contain a minimum of short-term goals and a maximum of personal development objectives with timelines extending beyond the next evaluation report.

Finally, the military may not incentivize or require long-term contact, but I am personally expanding the time horizons of my relationships, in part to shift my approach in the present. I am doing this by building an enduring “rolodex” of leaders I have helped in the past, then using it to touch base with several each month. I find that these interactions can be less formal, and in some ways more productive, after official duty relationships end. By sustaining contact, my mentees and I will grow together into the future while building a mutually beneficial network.

I offer one last piece of advice: seek your own broadening experiences, especially those outside the all-too-common business management options. Seek exposure to other models. When I did, I found in the differences much to like.

Start a conversation. Spark a conversation.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily represent the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.


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