Mentoring and the military

10 Apr

Last year I was privileged to assess one of the most well-founded and effective mentoring programmes I have encountered. This programme was not in a sector, where one would normally look for good practice in mentoring. It was in the military and, specifically, in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. People at all levels received confidential, client-centred support from well-trained and highly motivated mentors.

A key lesson for me from this experience is how well mentoring fits with the supportive ethos of modern military organisations. It’s easy to assume that the command and control structure of the military would work against honest, empathetic conversations about career and personal development, but the opposite appears to be the case. Where the command structure is balanced by a deep-seated and genuine concern for the welfare of personnel, mentoring provides a practical resource, where people can explore their understanding of themselves and how they can grow into greater responsibilities (or simply become more effective and in tune with their current roles and responsibilities).

In the ideal modern military organisation, service men and women are no longer cannon-fodder. They are valued and respected as individuals and expected to show appropriate initiative. Mentoring helps to reinforce that mindset by building co-learning relationships across the boundaries of rank and job role. So much so that many of the military leaders around the world, who we have spoken to in recent months, regard mentoring as an essential element of an efficient fighting force of the future.

The benefits of well-supported mentoring
Mentors can help service men and women in a number of ways. Being outside of the chain of command, they can provide relatively objective perspectives on the issues the mentees encounter and a safe place to explore them. Among the key roles and functions mentors can play are in:

• Career development. The military offers a wide range of career choices and it can be invaluable to have a dispassionate, informed person, who can help work through the pros and cons of different pathways. The mentor can raise awareness of opportunities, which the mentee might not be aware of, or has not considered. They can also use their networks to help the mentee make connections, through which they can learn more about roles they are not familiar with.
• Encouraging initiative. A key part of developing initiative is to trust oneself and to trust colleagues – two qualities, which have strong value in the field as well. The mentoring relationship provides a space, where the mentee can explore unfamiliar ideas and develop the habit of knowing when and how to take initiative. Mentoring is at heart a creative conversation, so mentees learn to respect their own intuition and ideas.
• Understanding the context and systems. As in all areas of work and society, military organisations are increasingly complex. Mentoring helps develop more complex, systemic ways of thinking and awareness of how performance relies on the integration of multiple elements. This can be especially important in the context of peace-keeping, where the role of the military is directed and constrained by social and political systems. Working with a mentor helps the mentee recognise the complexity and respond appropriately to it, even if they have little scope for influencing these systems.
• Conscience. Mentors often help mentees think through the moral dimensions of their job roles – for example, how to manage conflict between personal values and mission values.
• Transitions. The career transitions that military personnel go through are similar to but sometimes more immediately demanding than those faced by people in corporate careers. Key transitions include from training to the field; learning how to managing oneself under stress; leading others (first command); leading leaders; and so on.
• Role modelling. Good mentors are typically role models for behaviours and attitudes aligned with the values of the service. By observing the mentor, mentees develop greater skills of listening, reflection, communicating etc. Mentors can also be role models for self-managed learning, and for personal integrity.
• Life after military service. An increasingly common role for mentors in the military is helping mentees prepare for civilian life. This can be the toughest transition of all, especially for those invalided out of the service. Mentors stimulate mentees to plan ahead, reflect upon their skills and experience, and build a work portfolio that will appeal to civilian employers

For the military organisation, mentoring may result in:

• Higher retention. While no specific studies using control groups have been carried out into retention within the military, studies in other sectors indicate that mentees are less likely to quit than non-mentored peers.
• Proactivity/ accountability. Within traditional military organisations, it’s common for people to let the system make decisions for them. Mentoring shifts the responsibility for self-development back to the individual, where it belongs.
• Improved judgement. Mentoring challenges how people see the world and helps to grow their skills of critical thinking.
• Succession planning. Standard forms of talent identification don’t work well, as Daniel Kahneman’s studies of assessment centre approaches in the Israeli army demonstrated. Mentoring both enables senior personnel to get to know potential talent at an appropriate depth and encourages people, who might be overlooked, to raise aspirations and put themselves forward. This is particularly important in the context of diversity in military leadership.
• Team cohesion. Mentoring conversations frequently turn to the mentee’s relationships with key colleagues and how they can manage these better. By helping the mentee see how their behaviour stimulates behaviour in others, by rehearsing difficult conversations and by exploring tactics for influencing positively, mentoring has subtle but powerful impacts upon the teams, of which the mentee is a part. Where the mentee is a team leader, the impact of these safe conversations on team performance can be immense.

Developing a mentoring capability
Formal mentoring programmes are still relatively rare in the military, but some lessons that can be taken from experience include:

• Distinguish between line of command and the objective relationship. It may seem obvious, but attempts to combine mentoring and line management almost always fail, because there is a conflict of roles. However, one of the great benefits when officers and NCOs become mentors is that they learn developmental skills they can transfer to their relationships with their teams. Being able to practise these skills with people outside the reporting line helps embed them, because there are fewer risks compared with having similar conversations with direct reports – so it’s easier to try new approaches.
• Clarify where and how mentoring can add value. There are two principal categories here. One is organisational – how can mentoring support the goals of the service, both short-term and long-term? The other is relational – what are the things that people will benefit from discussing in a safe environment, which they don’t address openly now? Initial research into these issues can ensure that the programme is embedded in real needs.
• Educate and support mentors and mentees. One of the frequent reasons mentoring programmes fail is because one or both parties doesn’t understand what is expected of them; and/or lacks the skills to play their part. Training needs to be both initial (to get started) and at intervals to reinforce good practice and continue to develop skills and techniques.
• Have a programme co-ordinator. It’s essential to have someone, who takes responsibility for the programme and is actively involved in selection, matching, training and all the administrative elements of an effective programme.
• Measure quality. While too much bureaucracy can stifle the informal nature of the mentoring relationship, it’s important to have information about how well training has taken, whether relationships are going well and how well the programme is meeting its objectives. You may also wish to gain public recognition of programme quality by having it assessed against the International Standards for Mentoring Programmes in Employment (www.ismpe.org)
• Some issues to be aware of include:
• Privacy: While in a corporate environment, it is usually good practice for the mentoring pairing to be public knowledge (to avoid unseen patronage), in the military it may be more appropriate for only the programme manager to be aware of who is paired with whom. The line manager needs know only that their direct report is in a mentoring relationship, for which they require reasonable time from normal duties. In both cases, of course, the content of mentoring conversations is strictly confidential, within obvious boundaries of safety and legality.
• Time for mentoring: It has to be a clear and enforced policy that time is allocated for mentoring, unless operational urgency takes precedent.
• When the mentor becomes line manager: The dynamics of the relationship change immediately and formal mentoring must cease. If it doesn’t, there is a danger of perceived favouritism. Normal practice is to initiate a discussion with the programme manager as to whether the mentee needs to move on to a new mentor.
• Sustainability: Programmes and relationships can both run out of steam. For relationships, the answer is to explore more complex, more difficult issues – or to decide that the relationship has fulfilled its purpose and can be wound up. For programmes, continuously developing the skills of mentors and reinforcing the link with service or mission objectives generally works to sustain momentum.

Military historians point to many examples of the role of mentors, as far back as Alexander the Great and Aristotle. Whether people at lower ranks also had mentors is unknown. But as modern armed forces evolve into organisations that rely as much and more on the minds of those who serve, rather than on their muscle, mentoring will have a greater and greater part to play, from military strategy to front-line operations. The challenge now is how to transform mentoring from a poorly understood concept to an integral element of modern military infrastructure. The RNZAF has shown that it can be done!

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