Today, I want to discuss the role of the Army Mentor. I want to teach you what activities you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to mentoring your subordinates. In essence, a mentor is a teacher. A mentor is someone who educates, inspires, helps and molds people. In most cases, your mentor will be your boss, or your boss’s boss, but it doesn’t have to be one of those people. Anyone can be your mentor. Just make sure they are qualified to give you advice. There’s an old saying to be careful who you listen to, because you might end up just like them!
I think the best way to find an Army Mentor is to look for someone who has already accomplished what you want to accomplish in your military career. For instance, if you are a Staff Sergeant, and want to attain the rank of Command Sergeant’s Major before you retire, I would highly recommend you ask for mentorship from a current or retired CSM. Don’t get career advice from the 20-year Specialist! Remember, a mentor who has already accomplished what you want to accomplish can provide helpful insights and tips, based upon their experience.
This rule applies to Soldiers, Officers and NCOs at every rank. It’s vital to have a mentor! You can get input from anyone, but take it with a grain of salt if you don’t think they are qualified to give you the advice. Only listen to advice from people who are qualified to give it.
It’s also important to realize that you can learn something from everyone, even the idiots. You can learn what NOT to do. And you can learn from your subordinates. Just because someone isn’t a high rank doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent or knowledgeable. Always keep your eyes, ears and mind open. You never know what you will learn, or from whom.
In addition to finding someone to mentor you, you have the responsibility to mentor others. Depending upon your rank and leadership position, there’s a good chance the Army has entrusted others under your command or authority. You have a responsibility to lead them, to teach them, to help them and to mentor them. You can also mentor people outside of your command influence. My best advice is DON’T mentor anyone outside of your chain of command unless they ask you to. Most people don’t enjoy receiving unasked for advice.
In the following paragraphs I will discuss the role of the mentor. I will share some tips covering what you should and shouldn’t do.
The Role of the Mentor
Listed below are your seven primary responsibilities as a mentor.
# 1 To Identify People with the Greatest Leadership Potential
One of your primary tasks as a leader is to identify people with leadership potential. While it’s true that everyone has some potential, you want to spend most of your time with the people with the greatest potential. What I recommend you do is make a list of everyone who works for you. Write down their strengths and weaknesses. Rank them, in order of their leadership potential, as you see it.
Who are your strongest leaders and best performers? Who are the people that want to grow and develop new skills? Who are the motivated people who don’t yet have the skills they need to succeed? Who are the people that are THIRSTY for knowledge?
I’m not suggesting you play favorites. You should mentor everyone you command. However, you should work smart and spend most of your time with (1) the people with the greatest leadership potential and (2) the people who have the motivation to improve. Don’t waste your time with slugs who don’t want to learn, grow, change or perform at a high level.
# 2 To Challenge Your Subordinates and Help Them Grow
A mentor should challenge her subordinates whenever possible. This means he/she should give their subordinates challenges that are outside of their scope of work. He/She should give them difficult tasks to see how they perform. He/She should offer challenges that will “stretch” their subordinates out of their comfort zones. This will help them grow as leaders. I’ve found that most people like a new challenge. Assigning a new challenge to your followers will be the quickest way to find out who has the most initiative.
# 3 To Help People Identify Their Strengths and Weaknesses
One of your most important jobs as a mentor is to help people identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Help them do a personality test and strength assessment so they can start the “self-discovery process” and find out what makes them tick. Show them what jobs best match their personalities. Help them identify what they are best at and try to put them in jobs where they can effectively utilize their strengths. Helping people figure out “who they are really are” is fun, challenging and very rewarding.
# 4 To Teach Your Job to Your Subordinates
Good mentors should teach their followers how to do their job. Everyone under her command should know how to do their direct supervisor’s job. The only way to do that is through mentorship. Spend time with your followers. Show them what your job entails. Bring your followers to meetings. Let them participate. Involve them whenever possible. You have to remember that we are all expendable. In combat, anything can happen. So everyone should know how to do their boss’ job.
# 5 To Help Your Followers Solve their Own Problems, Rather than Just Give Them The Solutions
Most leaders are naturally problem solvers. Whenever one of their subordinates has a challenge, they offer a solution. I encourage you NOT to do that very often. Instead, you want to teach your followers how to solve their own problems. Sure, you might need to give them advice from time to time. That’s okay. But, don’t make it a point to always provide the solution. Instead, ask questions. Help your people solve their own problems. Teach them to be independent thinkers who understand how to solve problems on their own. The last thing you want is a bunch of DEPENDENT people working for you.
# 6 To Develop Trust and Mutual Respect
A good mentor will EARN the respect of his followers. All successful business, professional and personal relationships are built upon trust and mutual respect. That means you need to learn how to listen. You need to keep things confidential. You need to be approachable. You must always be there for your followers with an open mind and a listening ear. Trust and a respect are a two way street. Your followers will respect your rank, but you have to be a good leader to get them to trust and respect YOU.
# 7 To Invest Time with Your Followers
Quality time is important. So is QUANTITY time. You must spend lots of one-on-one and group time with your followers. Take them to meetings. Conduct coaching, classes and counseling. Talk. Listen. Find out what your subordinates want to accomplish in life. Help them reach their goals. Spend at least 20% of your working hours mentoring your subordinates.
I truly believe these seven things are the primary role of the mentor.
What You Shouldn’t Do
We just covered what mentors should do. However, it’s important to take a moment to discuss what mentors shouldn’t do.
# 1 Don’t Be a Doctor, Lawyer, Psychologist or Chaplain
Do not get in the business of providing legal, financial, psychological or medical advice. Save that for licensed professionals in those areas of expertise. If your follower needs advice on one of these topics, refer them to a licensed specialist. Or, refer them to the Chaplain, who can refer them to one of these folks.
# 2 Don’t Play God
You aren’t perfect. No one is. There will come a time at some point where you need to provide advice that you ARE NOT qualified to give. In these examples, refer your subordinates to someone who is a subject matter expert. And don’t pretend to be a know it all. Your followers will respect you if you are honest with them and tell them when you don’t know something.
# 3 Don’t Be a Babysitter
Your job is to mentor your people, not babysit them. To me, this means (1) never tell them HOW to do a task that you give them (unless they ask you to) and (2) hold your followers accountable when they fail to meet the standards. Giving a person a break is one thing. Babysitting someone is completely different. In many ways, the military has become like “Jerry’s Kids” where people aren’t held responsible for their actions. People play victims and blame everyone but themselves. My advice to you is don’t let that happen in your unit.
# 4 Don’t Be a Social Worker
You are not a therapist or social worker. If your soldier has this type of issues, refer them to an expert. You don’t want to misguide your people, send them down the wrong path, or get into some type of legal trouble for stepping out of your leadership boundaries. If you think your soldier needs help, get them help from a professional.
# 5 Don’t Be an ATM
Don’t make the common mistake of lending money to people who work for you. This creates a “burden” in the professional relationship and does much more bad than good. If you lend someone money and they don’t repay you, the relationship will be damaged.
# 6 Don’t Act Like Their Parent or Spouse
That’s right; you aren’t the parent or spouse either. You don’t “control” the person outside of work. So, don’t try to get too involved with your followers’ personal affairs. Try to keep the work/personal life separate. If your followers need help concerning a personal issue, listen to their problem and then send them to someone who is QUALIFIED to give them advice.
I’ve found that when you start doing any of these six activities, you actually hurt your leadership effectiveness. You’d think these would all be “common sense’ but you would be pleasantly surprised how many mentors break these rules.
These are the “dos” and “don’ts” for mentoring your soldiers, as I see it. My best advice to you is to trust your judgment, be a good role model and always try to do the right thing. If you make a mistake, admit it. Learn from it and move forward.
- The Mentor: Everything You Need to Know about Army Leadership and Counseling by CSM Mark Gerecht
- The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams that Win Consistently by Tony Dungy
- Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship by Edward Cox
- FM 6-22: Army Leadership
If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.