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An Army of Mentors

The U.S. Army formalized mentoring among its 300,000 civilian workers with a battle plan to match up the right people and get them the best resources.

November 7, 2010
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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Many talent management leaders today may feel like they work in a war zone. Like the U.S. Armed Forces, talent managers are waging battles on multiple fronts, managing a workforce stretched nearly beyond its limits and wondering how to develop the next generation of strong leaders. So what can talent management leaders learn from the U.S. Army? Groundbreaking new mentoring programs for Army civilians demonstrate the value of taking a long view of talent management and investing in high-potential leaders now for the sake of the future.

Many organizations have some form of mentoring program or have taken steps to create a mentoring culture. And, much like the U.S. Army, when pressed to describe the structure, goals and outcomes of those mentoring endeavors, leaders would recount a highly variable set of results. Too often, mentoring programs — despite being well-intended — are loosely structured and informally administered. They may lack the curriculum, matching, training and engagement required to achieve real return on investment.

Tapping Into Leadership Potential

The U.S. Army employs a large corps of civilian leaders who work alongside and in support of the Army’s active leadership. The U.S. Army Civilian Corps is comprised of 300,000 civilian workers who lead key initiatives and manage staffs to sustain the Army’s active-duty forces at home and abroad. The Army’s leadership initiatives for developing active-duty forces are world-renowned, but the organization has recently placed new and unprecedented emphasis on the professional development of its civilian workforce. Mentoring is seen as a significant part of that effort.

One such program is inside the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and its Senior Leader Development Program (SLDP). The SLDP equips participants with the tools and skills required to lead and manage change, think strategically and represent the Army across organizations. The program is an overlay to the participants’ full-time roles, and it combines executive education with unique experiences and exposure in short- and long-term developmental assignments over a period of two years. Mentoring was always integral to the program, but it relied on leaders within the various positional assignments to provide mentoring in a less formal way.

Like so many of its corporate contemporaries, the Army has long relied on some form of mentoring to nurture those with leadership potential. The very nature of the Army’s hierarchal chain of command would seem to naturally foster a sense of mentorship. Likewise, many corporate organizations rely on the hierarchy of their own organizations or some other organic or loosely managed process to foster mentoring. For that reason, internal mentoring programs run the gamut from informal to formal and from loose and ineffective to structured and valuable.

Army leadership saw value in formalizing and structuring mentoring processes, as well as in redefining its approach to mentoring, and it turned to a private-sector firm, Pathbuilders. Pathbuilders applied the strategies and curricula for managing corporate mentoring programs to fulfill the Army’s needs. The result is a program where mentees and mentors from diverse commands and agencies are matched not based on reporting structure or function, but on the core developmental issues for the mentees.

Informal mentoring always has existed within organizations, traditionally with more of a focus on sponsorship and advocacy. But as the dynamics and composition of the workforce have changed, the benefits of utilizing mentoring as a key tool in professional development have become more apparent. All developmental activities are now expected to demonstrate a return for the organization and contribute to bottom-line performance. Further, career management has become each individual’s responsibility. Goals to increase diversity in senior management have driven growth in the use of mentoring programs, especially when they are effectively linked to measurable outcomes.

Matching Mentors With Mentees
Taking the development of its Army civilians to the next level called for creating a more structured and formal mentoring program. This new process began with a paradigm shift — working with a pool of mentors from outside of the mentees’ reporting structure, individuals throughout the Army, and even other federal agencies. A committed cadre of seasoned Army leaders answered the call, and each participant in the SLDP was strategically matched with a mentor who is a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES) Corps, or what the Army refers to as a Highly Qualified Executive (HQE). Each mentor is selected for his or her unique ability to help a particular mentee move forward on his or her developmental goals. And, without the connectedness of the reporting chain, the partnerships allow for more open and safe dialogue on core developmental issues beyond the more traditional discussions of function and departmental dynamics.

Too often, a mentee’s interest in a position or job function is the primary criterion examined when matching mentors and mentees. Such a process fails to incorporate the individual mentee’s developmental needs, his or her work history and experiences, and the personal barriers to growth that the mentee is experiencing. And, quite often, it is a mentor who has had similar personal growth experiences or experiences developing others with similar challenges and opportunities who can provide the individualized guidance that can help to position the mentee for success in any position or job function.

In addition to one-on-one mentoring, the program includes content-driven discussion guides and interactive webinars and seminars targeted at developing this next generation of Army civilian leadership.

Structured for Success
To create the basis for these highly customized matches, mentees and mentors participated in a process combining extensive interviews and structured matching. The mentee interviews focused on career plans, workplace challenges, limiting behaviors, and personal goals and interests. The process also identifies communication styles, key personality traits and style issues. Mentors — all HQEs or members of the SES Corps, the Army’s equivalent of C-suite executives — were also personally interviewed, with a focus on identifying those areas where they are uniquely suited to guide others in development. The rigorous matching process involved more than 30 minutes of discussion regarding each mentee and potential matches in an effort to identify the mentor best suited to help him or her with key developmental areas.

To initiate the relationship, the partners came together for a formal, six-hour training seminar designed to foster mutual understanding of roles and responsibilities and establish a strong connection between mentors and mentees. Participants were asked to accept a new definition of mentoring for this program, not rely on less formal experiences from their pasts. Given that the individuals would not encounter each other in their daily workplaces, special emphasis was given to the rules of engagement for each pair to ensure partnership success.

Each mentee-mentor partnership meets monthly either in person or via conferencing technology. The mentee is considered the managing partner of the relationship, so in addition to handling logistics, he or she creates the meeting agendas, prepares for the meeting by considering discussion topics and key questions, and follows up accordingly. This process of managing the relationship is, in itself, a developmental element of the program.

A facilitator monitors each relationship throughout the duration of the program, regularly speaking with mentors and mentees to assess the partnerships and their progress. By checking in early and often, the team has the ability to immediately address communication challenges, scheduling issues and other roadblocks that could potentially derail a partnership.

The last key element of the program is the curriculum. To ensure that partners engage in deep, substantive and focused conversation, the program includes a series of discussion guides that allow partners to explore key developmental topics. Each guide frames an issue and provides probing, thought-leading questions that partners can use to drive the conversation. This element creates vibrant conversation and focuses the pair to discuss real outcomes and reactions, not simply generalities or opinions.

Structure in the launch and the positioning of the program are critical to achieve the consistent high level of success that is required of a focused developmental offering. Support that combines ongoing training, monitoring, check-ins and substantive topics for partnership conversations helps to avoid the polite but ineffective relationships that are endemic to many conventional mentoring programs.

While the U.S. Army is unique in many ways, it shares with corporate organizations the tendency to rely on informal mentoring to develop a talented workforce. Too often mentoring is considered something that simply occurs and develops organically, like a friendship between two people who “click” or have a lot in common. Some mentoring relationships do follow that form. However, if the purpose of the mentoring relationship is to drive measureable success in achieving developmental goals, the partnership must go beyond chemistry and be based on substantive conversations, a clear curriculum and the pursuit of measurable results.

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