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On Talent Management and Mentorship
Jim Perkins, Chevy Cook and Ralph Hernandez
It’s no surprise that the military is failing to retain many of its best and brightest leaders. The call for talent management reform has been rung and it would seem that for those of us not working at OSD-Plans and Policy, there is little that we can do other than wait for changes to come. Sadly, this assumption is far from the truth. Regardless of what comes from the Force of the Future initiative[i] and assorted personnel reforms, we will never have a perfectly efficient labor market in the military.
There will always be imperfect information about our people, their desires, the opportunities ahead of them, and their needs for professional growth. Yes, policy reforms are needed, but they are not enough. People are our most precious resource and they are far more complex and nuanced than any algorithm can easily replicate, so it will take people to keep our personnel system strong. Mentors take active roles to keep the market efficient as they “help [future leaders] formulate career goals, encourage them to conduct candid self-inventories, and offer honest yet confidential talent assessments.”[ii] Corporate America (where the labor market is far closer to efficient) has recognized the need for leaders to identify and shepherd talented junior leaders for development[iii]; and even recommendations for military personnel reforms[iv] include mentors, too.
None of this should surprise readers who have taken a step to expand their professional horizons and read. Senior leaders[v] have written about the need for professional mentoring before, but (as this article will highlight) the current options are simply inadequate, if not counter-productive. Our failures in this area are adding to the talent hemorrhage, but we can fix this if we think creatively and innovate.
On the surface, facilitating mentoring seems very simple, but even establishing a common definition is a significant challenge. Mentoring is a component of professional development in each service yet each service has their own sharply different definition of mentoring.[vi] Second, and exacerbating confusion, the verbal triplet “coach, teach, and mentor” is thrown around so carelessly and so often that the words need entire professional articles simply to re-define them.[vii] Lastly, although military doctrine repeatedly uses the term mentor, mentorship and patronage are often confused. This complete misunderstanding of mentoring is where the problem begins.
Characterized by mutual trust and respect, mentoring is the voluntary developmental relationship that exists outside of the chain of command between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience. Mentoring can occur between individuals of the same or different ranks and it often occurs between a seasoned senior-NCO and a junior officer.
Mentoring is not, however, cronyism or favoritism. The term “mentor” does not mean a senior officer who has sufficient institutional influence to shape future assignments and opportunities for a young officer – that’s patronage. Patrons do not share their service’s motivations and seek to advance officers resembling themselves or who aid their own career progression. “Mentors, on the other hand, help officers to know themselves. Mentors listen. They advise. They provide wisdom, not institutional influence.”[viii]
Even with a shared understanding, the situation in units is not supportive. The military’s formal hierarchy and compartmentalized nature make organic relationships outside of the chain of command almost impossible to achieve until either a boss or subordinate has left the unit. To make it even more difficult, we shuffle seasoned leaders to cloistered staff jobs, recruiting duty, and shore tours right when they could best serve as mentors or benefit from it.
In an effort to encourage socializing, leaders have repeatedly dreamed up mandatory social events despite the fact that mentoring is inherently a voluntary activity. Meanwhile, concerns of alcohol-related misconduct has changed military views of officer clubs, happy hours, and after-work social events. These events are now seen as “mandatory fun” that cannot end soon enough which has eroded quality, increased cynicism, and created barriers to future progress.
Attempts at online mentoring (both inside and outside of the Department of Defense) have also fallen short. CompanyCommand.com and PlatoonLeader.com were both initial successes and then lost over 90% of their membership when they were forced to migrate to .mil domains due to operational security. Meanwhile, DoD solutions like MyVector[ix] and milSuite[x] are locked behind CAC-enabled security leaving them unused which in turn keeps them disorganized and poorly maintained. Commercial versions[xi] are hardly better as users blast questions out to a sea of other users who offer little value (unless you enjoy meme wars). These failures would be less harmful if there were not numerous options for veterans seeking career mentoring especially while they transition[xii]. It is reasonable to assume that the military’s ineffective professional development efforts add to the frustrations of the highly motivated but disengaged professionals who leave our ranks.
At the root of all of this is the fact that real professional mentoring involves personalized interaction by people who have a vested interest in professional development. Individuals must participate freely, have the resources to develop each other, and share a desire to shape the next generation of leaders while learning from others who have gone before them. The DoD will likely never be able to create something that is simple, secure, mobile, and has the buy-in of thousands of users. An outside solution is required and already exists.
The newest generation of young leaders are part of the Millenial generation and the single most relevant defining characteristic of that generation is the use of mobile technology in all aspects of daily life. Digital manuals have finally replaced paper and a whole library can be carried on a smartphone. Meanwhile, those same men and women pass every minute of idle time using their phones to keep informed and connected to the world around them. Technology is just a means to greater engagement. They want to be developed, but our current system does not even attempt to engage them. We can change this.
Founded in 2015, MilitaryMentors.org is a social network that connects military professionals to each other and to the resources they need for professional development wherever they are. The network functions similar to a dating site or an online gym membership and creates a venue for verified current military members from disparate professional circles to meet and create connections for professional development. Once connected, they can tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience that is hidden away in other units and offices (often on the same base). No CAC readers or desktop computers, just a simple, secure, and mobile interface – three problems solved already. Although no prototype is perfect, MilitaryMentors.org is a huge step in the right direction for professional development.
The primary feature is the community of users that can be sorted and filtered to find a unique, not random, connection. Just like finding a workout partner, users can find someone with the experience and personality that best fits their needs starting with filters for service, branch, and duty station. Users don’t need to know every school you’ve been to or your entire official file – just the relevant parts – so, we let you choose what information you want to share. It’s the balance of privacy and OPSEC that makes the system so simple and secure.
Once connected, users can privately message each other to establish interest with the goal of in-person conversations – the kind that create learning and cause introspection – or as we say: “Start a conversation. Spark a transformation”. Other sites have failed because they emphasize internet traffic over quality. The number of connections or amount of time spent online is not a proxy for professional development. Military Mentors encourages good connections by letting users rate each other, so those who are open-minded and generous are rewarded and valued. This is part of what makes Military Mentors better than existing solutions.
One of the other features that makes Military Mentors different is called Circles and it is the modern solution to the officer/NCO clubs that fellow leaders and mentors have been calling for[xiii]. Whether it’s a DEF agora or a local “Drink and Think”, the goal is always the same. Real professional development comes via face-to-face interactions, but repeated PCS moves makes it nearly impossible to stay connected (and as a new ensign or lieutenant it can seem impossible to connect beyond your unit). With Circles, users can see all of the local groups around them and be instantly connected to new, local communities of practice.
With a focus on promoting face-to-face interaction, Circles can be used for peer and group mentoring by virtually connecting local groups together. Peer mentoring occurs when there is no senior leader to drive development and a group of peers develop each other. Infantrymen, aviators, submariners, and strategists can all benefit from this.
Similarly, senior leaders who are experts and thought leaders can maximize their reach by hosting their own Circle. Many leaders are taking up blogging as a medium for engagement; but unlike a one-way conversation on a blog, Circles are omni-directional and sorted locally which allows for richer online discussions and in-person development. How many officers from O-4 to O-6 could be engaging in rich junior leader development, but don’t have the opportunity based on their current duty position? Battalion commanders and skippers are often too busy for this, while their peers in non-command positions are often so far away from the junior leaders that could benefit the most. Circles offer the opportunity to engage and inspire multiple protégés at once.
The other significant change from existing systems is the library of resources. Our Forums feature is not a traditional message board for keyboard debates. Instead, it’s a crowd sourced library of articles, videos, and other resources that can start long discussions and fuel professional development. Our goal is to spread ideas and we’re following the great example set by TED but doing it for the military profession.
It’s easy to point out the ineffectiveness of our archaic, industrial-era system, but we are missing the low-cost, high-payoff opportunities that are well-within our grasp. A review of 30 years of research confirms that mentoring contributes significantly to career success.[xiv] Workers who report having had a mentor enjoy more rapid promotions, greater productivity, better professional confidence, higher competence, lower levels of job-related stress, and even a greater perceived chance of becoming eminent in their fields.[xv] Not just that, the same research showed that mentoring had significant positive correlations with work performance, more positive attitudes toward work, more career satisfaction, retention, organizational citizenship behavior, positive work attitudes, personal health, quantity of interpersonal relationships, greater career recognition, and general career competence.[xvi] Given how much it costs to recruit and train military leaders, these are not insignificant benefits, but the military cannot get out of its own way.
Military Mentors is not Facebook for the military or a new spin on an existing system – it’s a professional development network. You wouldn’t use Facebook to get a job and you wouldn’t use LinkedIn to find a date, and this problem-solution mismatch is why existing platforms have failed to provide the right answer. We empower professional development in the military and that requires more than Likes, 140-character messages, and uni-directional sharing.
Military Mentors is dedicated to fostering and sustaining a community of military professionals who are passionate about improving themselves and the next generation of military leaders. Driven by our vision, “Start a conversation. Spark a transformation,” MilitaryMentors.org connects military professionals to each other and to the resources that they need to increase their self-awareness and develop into the most capable leaders and servants of our nation. The site is open for early users now and launches nationally in May 2016. Visit militarymentors.org to sign-up and find out more. Join us as we take charge of our professional development.
[iii] Thomas J. Delong, John J. Gabarro, and Robert J. Lees, “Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World”, Harvard Business Review, January 2008, Accessed online at https://hbr.org/2008/01/why-mentoring-matters-in-a-hypercompetitive-world
[iv] LTC David Lyle et al. “Senior Officer Talent Management” Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis (Feb 2014), p. 61, Accessed online at https://talent.army.mil/wp-content/uploads/pdf_uploads/publications/Senior-Officer-Talent-Management.pdf
[vi] Department of the Navy, Mentoring Program Handbook, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Navy, 2005). (available from Navy Knowledge Online (NKO)) and Message, ALMAR 008/06 142030Z FEB 06, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Subj: The Marine Corps Mentoring Program; available from www.USMC.mil/ALMARS; Internet; accessed 17 May 2006.
[vii] Dr. Ted Thomas and Jim Thomas, “Mentoring, Coaching, and Counseling: Toward a Common Understanding” http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/repository/dcl_Mentoring.pdf
[viii] Senior Officer Talent Management, p. 61.
[xiv] W. Brad Johnson and Gene R. Andersen, “Formal Mentoring in the U.S. Military: Research Evidence, Lingering Questions, and Recommendations”, Naval War College Review, (Spring, 2010) Vol. 63, No.2, p. 113-126 https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/1d75c515-7093-4bc3-92fa-7284b7198bb4/Formal-Mentoring-in-the-U-S--Military--Research-Ev