This week’s post is a guest article from Xkoshan Arnold, a veteran Army officer, that takes a very practical look at how you get into mentoring and what you can potentially do as a mentee. If you’d like to share your perspective as well, please reach out to us. Don’t hesitate to sign up for free as well! Let MilitaryMentors.org guide your path.
Mentoring is one of the most important keys to professional and personal success. As the title states, mentoring is the light that shines on the path to success. Yet, mentorship is not as widespread as one would hope. In my view, what separates the average from the good and the good from the great is mentorship. I have come to believe that being good may get you to LTC, but no further, especially not in the highly competitive environment of a downsizing military. What do you do when your path is not lit? The goal of this article is help you think about the importance of obtaining mentorship. First, we must discuss how one will know if they are in the dark. Next, we will discuss how to obtain mentorship. Finally, we will provide some advice on maintaining that mentor/mentee relationship.
Are you in the Dark?
First, being in the dark is not as obvious as it may appear. You may think you are receiving mentorship when you are actually just receiving coaching, counseling, or advice. Of the three mentioned, coaching resembles mentorship the most. However, according to Management Mentors (MM), coaching is task oriented, while mentoring is relationship oriented. This ties in the next difference between the two. That is that coaching, according to MM is focused on “short-term goals and mentoring is long term.” Choosing to mentor a junior leader is a career-long commitment and one should not take it lightly. This is why coaching is more common. Coaching is easy. When a potential mentoring session does not focus on your long-term growth, then you are only receiving coaching and should treat the interaction as such. Mentoring is informal. It gets personal. This is why leader to subordinate development should not be considered mentoring because a formalized chain of command exists. In other words, you cannot receive true mentorship from your leader, boss, or commander because of the chain of command. Finally, you cannot receive true mentorship from leaders who have not walked your development path. Find someone who’s done what you’re trying to do.
Let’s get some real mentorship
So how does one obtain mentorship? The most obvious answer is to ask. However, a potential mentee should not ask that question of anyone he (she) does not have a previous professional relationship with. It is highly inappropriate to ask, say, the Commanding General of FORSCOM to become your mentor if you never had the relationship I described with that commander. This type of relationship could stem from working in the same unit or a leader-subordinate relationship. I have found that the most successful and enduring mentoring relationships stem from the latter form of relationship because the mentor has a general idea of the mentee’s strengths and weaknesses. If you can not identify a potential mentor through the ‘direct ask’ method then ask a leader that you admire, but may not be an appropriate selection for a mentor, to link you up with a potential mentor. I have established mentorship relationships using both methods. With the second option, be cognizant of the fact that a mentee will have to invest more time in developing the relationship because of the unfamiliarity.
Once you have it, build it…
Finally, here is some advice that may help you build and maintain a successful mentorship relationship:
1. You must recognize that this relationship should endure over many years, maybe even your entire career. That means you must invest time into the relationship’s development. It will not magically happen.
2. Keep in constant contact. I once heard a general officer recommend that you contact your mentor once per quarter, at a minimum. I would try to follow that advice as well.
3. Get personal. Keep your mentor abreast of personal accomplishments and milestones as well, i.e. when you get married or have children.
4. Get to know their family. Who knows, you may just become a mentor to their children.
5. Invite him or her to events. Whether it is a change of command ceremony, wedding, birthday party, or any other pertinent event – invite your mentor.
6. Lend support to your mentor. You should expect that your mentor will need your help with something in future. Be prepared to help him/her. The mentoring relationship is one of reciprocity. It is not a one-way street where knowledge and assistance is passed only to the mentee.
7. Be honest and expect honesty of your mentor. Be prepared to get an honest assessment and advice from your mentor.
What mentoring is not
Before ending this article, I want to add some caveats for what I believe mentoring cannot accomplish and what mentee should not expect:
1. Love for your profession – If you hate your profession (or branch), then you cannot expect to have a successful mentoring relationship. There are soldiers who are in branches or jobs that they dislike for a number of reasons. You must understand that success is linked to enjoyment. Before you can be a good mentee, you must be in a profession that you enjoy.
2. Fixing ethical values – No mentor can save a career when a leader has a lapse in ethics. Do not put your mentor in a position to help you survive an ethical lapse. The same is true for breaking the law.
3. Making bad leaders great leaders – Some people should just not be leaders. You have to do look yourself in the mirror and decide if the military is the correct profession for you.
4. Fix every problem you may encounter in your career – A mentee should not waste a mentor’s time with a constant barrage of calls or emails seeking advice. Try to solve problems at the lowest level. Remember – a mentor is focused on the holistic development of the service member.
In summary, we focused on helping leaders properly seek mentoring. Too often, leaders confuse coaching and counseling with mentoring. Mentoring is a career-long endeavor. Mentoring focuses more on professional development; coaching and counseling usually are more task-oriented. Once there is a realization of these differences true mentorship can be achieved. It is then that the leader will truly be able to become successful because the path to success is illuminated. Once a leader has obtained a mentor, they must seek cultivate and grow that relationship. It will not happen magically. Cultivation and growth are purposeful actions. Finally, remember that mentoring is not some wand that will turn a bad officer into a great officer, it most likely cannot correct ethical lapses, and it should not be used a “tip line” whenever a leader encounters friction. Some places may be too dark, but feel good in the fact that in the end mentorship lights the path for many more of us along the path of success.