So what does mentoring look like in the Australian Army?
There is no denying that mentoring is an important aspect of developing our future leaders. No matter what rank, whether it be Private or General, we learn best by gaining the advice and experience of those who have gone before us. When that knowledge belongs to a human being rather than a text-book, we are more likely to gain greater understanding and derive deeper personal meaning. So why is mentoring not something that permeates the fabric of Defence culture at every level?
Part of the reason may be a lack of consensus on the definition. Operationally speaking, mentoring constitutes a specific role or mission that is grounded in doctrine (LWD 3-0-5 Operational Mentoring) and includes set tasks and guidelines. This is very different to a traditional mentoring role which is defined as ‘a developmental relationship between a person of greater experience that is characterised by mutual trust and respect‘. It is also different to ‘coaching’ which can be defined as a ‘development technique used by experts to improve a skill, task or specific behaviours’.
It is up to every individual to take a proactive approach to their own development. Being assigned a mentor may help initially for someone who is unsure how to approach the subject or who to approach, however, a successful mentoring relationship is based on mutual understanding, and a commonality of interest and purpose which may be hit or miss if not completely voluntary. Quoting Regimental Sergeant Major TRADOC, Ken Bullman ‘We tend to assume that those in the chain of command, by default, become our mentors. Such as ‘the Commanding Officer (CO) will be the mentor for the Officer Commanding (OC) or the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) will mentor the Company Sergeant Major’ (CSM) ‘ The CO is the CO, he or she may not have the traits the OC is looking for or needs assistance with for their personal development. The CO can guide, coach and train as is their responsibility, however, a mentor is much more personal’.
The chain of command has an important role to play in developing individuals and teams in order to meet capability. In doing so, they will naturally assume a mentoring function. However, as advised by Chief of Army Directive 07/17, having a direct superior as a mentor is not necessarily appropriate. There is always a risk of bias, a sense of obligation or conflict of interest that may have negative personal and professional consequences. In practicality, a previous superior or colleague who no longer has influence within the workplace is often an ideal choice. The chain of command (and possibly our training institutions) are in a perfect position to encourage individuals-especially those who are new to their roles- to seek out a mentor and possibly facilitate an introduction.
While we have a very structured approach to command and leadership, mentoring is much more difficult to establish, infact there is very little literature or guidance available. Mentorship can take on many different forms. It can be a formal arrangement whereby both parties agree on an action plan and who meet regularly, or be completely informal. Your mentor may not be aware you consider them as such. They are simply someone you observe, listen and learn from, or if you choose to engage them, you may have a routine or more active exchange. You may have a mentor for different aspects of your life such as playing sport, doing your job, public speaking, writing an essay. There are no set rules about age, gender, rank or corps and while it’s assumed that a mentor will be older, and of higher rank, this is not always the case, nor should it be.
As well as the tangible benefits that a mentoring relationship can offer such as better job performance, there are less obvious benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked such as increased self-esteem, resilience, and social inclusion. Individuals naturally have an inbuilt radar that searches for inspirational leaders and role models, however, there is nothing to say our radars could not be more finely tuned. Junior soldiers and officers should be actively encouraged to seek out a mentor in the hope they are brave enough to start a conversation. ‘I could really use some help in…’ If you have time, would you mind showing me…’ ‘I would really like to improve at…’
If you have not previously considered the need for a mentor(s), the first step is to identify areas for self-improvement. Once you know where your weaknesses lie and what you want to achieve, the next step is to find those individuals who possess the qualities you wish to emulate. Your efforts could result in long-term contacts that form part of your professional and/or personal support network. Conversely, you may find that as you progress through your career, you naturally assume the role of a mentor by virtue of the wisdom you’ve gained along the way. If that’s the case, the investment of time and effort to engage with a mentee will undoubtedly provide valuable dividends. Not only are you helping an individual fulfil their potential, you may also find opportunities to improve or learn more about yourself. It may be as simple as asking someone if they would like assistance or introducing them to a colleague. While its not necessary to be in contact on a regular basis, the simple act of contacting your mentee every so often to see how they are travelling shows you are interested in their development and well-being.
Perhaps the main point to highlight here is that mentoring is not a command function, rather it is a whole of Army approach to the development of our people. It is an organic process that can not be prescribed or forced. There are no set rules, training programs or timetables to follow, or consequences for failing to act. For this reason, mentoring is often dismissed as something we do naturally or only necessary when we reach a certain rank. To the contrary, mentoring is not a passive exercise, it requires a conscious decision on behalf of mentees to actively seek out their mentors and for potential mentors to recognise opportunities to share their knowledge, skills, expertise and provide support at all levels.
About the author: Vicky Osborn is an Education Officer posted to Headquarters Forces Command, Directorate of Professional Military Education. Previous postings include the Army Knowledge Centre (ALPC) and Army Logistics Training Centre.