This is part 9 of the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook. I encourage you to start with the series introduction here if you have not yet.
When looking at the great leaders of the past and present, either universally known or just impactful in our own lives, we often see a trend that they were not self-made men or women. Considering some of the famous military leaders of the 20th century, for example – George Marshall, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower – they all share a common thread through their careers: deliberate mentorship by Fox Connor.
I am no expert on mentorship, but any holistic approach to leader development is not complete without the inclusion of this topic. As leadership author, Dr. John C. Maxwell, states, “one of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” We need help looking ahead, filling gaps, and making sense of experiences. Mentorship is essential to an effective leader development process and it is the final method in our Leader Development Matrix.
As introduced in part 6 of this Leader Development Handbook, mentoring is also the final style of developmental communication required of all leader developers. Development requires counseling – setting expectations and providing relevant, consistent feedback-loops. It requires teaching – educating, training, inspiring, and providing our people with new knowledge and capacities. It demands coaching – processes of guiding our people through decisions, self-exploration and actualization, and ways of thinking. Beyond these, it also requires mentorship, which fills the remaining gaps to complete leaders’ developmental communication not achieved by the other styles.
There are three elements to every mentorship relationship: it’s developmental, it’s voluntary, and it involves a person of more experience and one of less experience. The U.S. Army’s definition of mentorship captures all three elements: “mentorship is 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. The focus of mentorship is voluntary mentoring that extends beyond the scope of chain of command relationships and occurs when a mentor provides the mentee advice and counsel over a period of time. Effective mentorship will positively impact personal and professional development” (Army Regulation 600-100).
Many readers may be familiar with the concept of mentorship, but have heard the person with lesser experience be referred to as a “mentee” or as a “protégé.” Many may consider these words interchangeable, but I believe protégé is a slippery slope within mentorship relationships. It generates perceptions of the mentor grooming the junior person in the relationship to becoming like them – following their specific career path, leading and acting the same way they do, and creating a “mini-me” of the mentor. Mentee, however, helps us better consider the lesser-experienced member’s ability to pursue their own career paths, goals, and decisions, but with the guidance and perspective of someone with more experience. Mentorship is NOT creating others to be just like you, but to become the best versions of themselves and best leaders that they can.
A Model for Mentorship
There is extensive literature on mentorship, its value, and how to go about engaging in it. It can easily seem like a complex, overwhelming topic, leading many of us to feel unqualified to mentor others. Despite all the complexities associated with mentorship, I still remain committed to a simple, three step model. As a mentor, you:
- Share what you know.
Mentorship conversations truly are that simple. I encourage mentors to aim to listen far more often than share. Offering advice and perspective is essential to successful mentorship, yes, but you cannot know if you’re giving correct or relevant advice without listening extensively first.
The horizon of mentorship topics for leader development can be vast. They can include any of the following; the best mentorship relationships tend to cover most, if not all of them, over time.
- Career development: Deliberately helping the mentee plan, prepare for, and lead a successful and purposeful career.
- Leader development: Building the mentee’s leadership abilities. Development happens daily, not in a day. This is why we refer to it as developmental communication. Development cannot occur without focused, exploratory conversation.
- Challenges and problems: Mentors help mentees think through and decide in the hard or gray parts of leading others.
- Reflection: Mentors provide perspective, which magnifies the impact of reflective sense-making after key experiences.
Selecting Mentors / Mentees
We all likely agree how imperative mentorship is to our leader development. And, of course, we all desire to have mentors in our lives and careers. However, so many of us lack quality mentors in our own development. We are either unsure of who to look to for mentorship or (if you’re like me) we are too fearful to ask respected senior leaders to enter into a purposeful relationship with us, which requires added time and effort from their already demanding schedules.
Mentor-mentee relationships should be selected based on “fit.” Fit between members can occur over a variety of dimensions.
- Values: You align with your mentor/mentee in personal and professional values or commitment to certain professional topics.
- Respect: Mutual trust and interest is a must.
- Social preferences: You like interacting with one another and work well together; you get along with each other.
- Career similarities: You both are within the same or similar fields to add technical areas of emphasis to your mentorship topics.
- Interests and passions: Are similar or aligned.
- Aspirations: Both are interested in going in the same or general directions in life or work.
- Your formal work relationship: Though mentorship generally occurs within one organizational context (both members of the same company or both members are in the U.S. Army for example), they tend to be outside of the chain-of-command and reporting channels, meaning your boss is not formally serving as your mentor. There is no right answer. Mentorship can occur within or outside of reporting chains, external to or within organizations, or even outside of formal organizational contexts.
Generally, congruence over these relationship dimensions is desirable between mentor and mentee. They improve the quality and depth of conversations over targeted topics. Diversity among these dimensions can also be valuable, though. Although diversity over values, respect, or aspirations may not necessarily be mutually beneficial, variance across other dimensions may. Such diversity can offer different perspectives and ideas not otherwise considered within mentorship between two similar people.
Ultimately, mentorship for leader development can and should take a “it takes a village…” approach. As a mentee, how can I maintain a personal “board of advisors,” or a variety of mentors across a breadth of these dimensions of mentor-mentee fit?
When initiating a mentorship relationship, consider some form of “contracting.” This can be initiated up (mentee to mentor) or down. Aim to agree on relationship norms like topics of desired/necessary exploration, means of meeting (person, phone, email, combination), and meeting intervals. Remember, quantity of meetings does not equal relationship quality. Some may desire more routine link-ups like daily or weekly, where others look toward monthly, quarterly, more less frequent. Determine what works best to satisfy both peoples’ needs and that is sustainable over time; meeting frequency can adjust over seasons of life and work.
Mentorship Characteristics and Considerations
Mentorship can offer several benefits, both within and external to the relationship. Mentors can enjoy improved professional identity, personal satisfaction in developing the 2nd and 3rd generations of leaders that follow them, elevated job performance, as well as learning innovative ways of thinking or ideas from fresh perspectives. Similarly, mentees gain improved job satisfaction, often expanded job opportunities, added socialization within the organization, a more complete perspective on situations and decisions, and an added reflective activity to integrate into their overall leader reflection process. Finally, mentors’ and mentees’ organization(s) gain added commitment from the individuals, improved socialization practices between members, closer alignment between members’ and espoused values, and an effective leader development activity creating better leaders.
While there is no right approach to mentorship relationships, below are some general considerations that can apply across a variety of relationship and organizational contexts.
- Then listen some more. Do that a couple of times, then share what you know and offer advice.
- Mentorship can look like some parts advising and other parts coaching. It’s ok to give advice and the answers. But I believe the best mentorship relationships incorporate coaching as well. Explore coaching more here, here, and here.
- Offer challenge and support. Developmental experiences require mentors to offer challenge (stretch mentee outside their comfort zone) and support (positive encouragement and reinforcement through learning). Consider how you are providing both and balancing them well based on your mentee’s needs.
- Be proactive and reach out to your mentee. It’s hard for the lesser-experienced member to ask for a superior’s time. Show them this is important to you by reaching out to meet.
- Help your mentee identify, target, and address their developmental needs. Use feedback tools and data to reinforce your perceptions if possible.
- You can’t give advice on what you’re not modeling. The first step of leader development is modeling the desired behavior.
- Be open, honest, and vulnerable. Doing so encourages your mentee to as well. It’s after those fear and shame-driven walls are let down that the best development happens.
- Be deliberate in targeting your developmental needs. You can look to your mentor to help determine your developmental needs and gaps, but you should take a proactive approach to this, not waiting for your mentor to tell you what to fix.
- Practice outside of your mentorship meetings. The intent is to become a better, more self-aware leader, which requires practice. So, take what you learn and discuss with your mentor and apply it in your leadership after. Then discuss your reflections and lessons after.
- Be open, honest, and vulnerable. The best development requires this, both from you and your mentor.
- Consider how you can give back to your mentor – this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Seriously contemplate how you can or are giving back to your mentor. Don’t merely be in “receive mode” during every interaction.
- Be humble and be thankful always.
Finally, as our developmental communication model indicates above, mentorship can be formal or informal within your organization. Informally, people across your organization can search for, select, and engage in mentorship on their own initiative. However, leaders can consider making mentorship more formal as part of their leader development process. If you’re interested in formalizing mentorship in your organization, consider all of the considerations addressed above (relationship fit, goals, topics, contracting, etc.) and how it will best meet your collective needs. Three examples of formal organizational mentorship that I’ve seen in my own development include:
- A U.S. Army aviation brigade combat team creating a formal mentorship program pairing up field grade officers with company grade ones with loose guidelines on how often to meet, etc. Pairs were selected external to individual battalions, meaning the mentor and mentee came from different sub-units within the brigade.
- A USMA Cadet company creating a Senior-Freshman mentorship program where Seniors are paired with a Freshman based on survey and fit results. Seniors are provided guidelines on topics of discussion and expectations to meet once a month.
- At USMA, all Cadets take a class on Military Leadership. Required in that class, all Cadets select a formal officer mentor. Over that semester-long course, the Cadets meet with their mentor at least three times to discuss their three assignments looking at their leader growth journey, leader self-assessment, and future leadership philosophy.
Adjourning: All Good Things Must End
Some mentorship relationships can last decades. Others, maybe a year or less. Both are okay; many good things in life must come to an end. No matter how long the relationship lasted or the reason for the necessary relationship termination, ensure it is ended well. Mentors, encourage and inspire your mentees; equip them with knowledge and resources for future success. Mentees, show deep and deliberate appreciation. A hand-written thank you note is the least that is required for your mentor’s time and effort.
Final Thoughts and Wrapping Up the Handbook
Mentorship ultimately can take many different forms and styles; there is no single right approach to mentorship. The best relationships select according to the right fit for both members, are mutually beneficial, agree on (contract) meeting details (how, how often, etc.), and are focused on deliberate development as leaders.
If you’re interested in learning more on mentorship, I recommend a few good resources:
- One Minute Mentoring, by Ken Blanchard and Claire Diaz-Ortiz
- Military Mentors
- The U.S. Army Mentorship Handbook (2005)
We finally wrap up our 3×5 Leader Development Handbook with the last part addressing the final step in our Leader Development Approach: building and reinforcing a culture of development in your organization.
As always: lead well, friends!
The content and thoughts within this article are my personal views only. They do not represent the views of the U.S. Army.
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