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Formal and Informal Mentoring Across Civilian and Military Sectors

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Army Captain Albert (Daniel) Jenkins is a logistics officer and graduate of Howard University. In this reflective piece he offers a few different perspectives regarding various mentoring programs.

Do you know the origins behind the word “mentor”? According to Greek Mythology there once existed a man named Mentor, who was friends with the famous Odysseus. When Odysseus went to war against Troy, he trusted his house under the care of Mentor, who was entrusted to guide Odysseus’s son Telemachus, giving him advice toward adulthood.

How Odysseus entrusted his friend as a mentor can be considered informal and potentially was a lifesaving decision. The same can be inferred today as we solicit others advice and guidance for life goals. Now, a mentor’s role has evolved to be more progressive, involving career decisions, family, financial etc. Not only are they considered friends, they’re also professionals, family members or associates. A mentor today can be within your social circle or beyond it. The way we all experience mentorship is different across organizations as an informal or formal strategy for career advancement plus demographic diversity.

It can be presumed that Odysseus was selective with whom he chose to watch over his house, son etc. He might have had to think about his friend’s strengths, weaknesses and whether they align with his own expectations. The same can be witnessed currently, where choosing the RIGHT person or fit is sometimes necessary to create a connection. In my previous work experience, I witnessed a formal program predicated on matching mentees w/mentors known as Project Imhotep (Morehouse College Public Health Sciences Institute, 2011). By matching public health students with professionals as part of its 11-week internship it took six weeks of interviews, proper vetting, and communication.

An integral part of the interview process was having public health professionals, often designated as student hosts, involved in the interview process. Having students placed with the appropriate mentor was always key to the success of the student since each participant had to submit/present a culminating research project at the conclusion of the program. Ultimately, this formal process of mentorship proved to be successful in the program’s extensive existence (15+yrs), which is funded by the Center Disease Control. The long-term benefits are especially prevalent as several of the participating mentors participated in the program in earlier years.

Despite the subject of Project Imhotep being Public Health, the underlying theme represents what the military encourages, mentorship through relationship building with an end goal of diversifying the work force for career advancement. After transitioning to the military full time (Regular Army) following my tenure with the program, I observed an obvious difference in the culture of the two. It turned out the military used both formal and informal outreach in related to mentorship (Military Leadership Diversity Commission, 2010).

Many years ago, the military addressed concerns of non-access to high quality mentoring relationships by implementing formal mentoring programs (MLDC, 2010). The military services all operate their mentor program differently however:

  1. The Air Force uses a supervisory program, where supervisors or raters are direct to act as the primary mentors for the airmen immediately below them in the chain of command;

  2. The Army’s is based on informal relationships, viewing mentoring as a volunteer developmental relationship where junior members are not required to enter mentor relationships and leaders are not explicitly directed to mentor all of their direct subordinates;

  3. The Coast Guard uses an official document that lists mentoring as one of its 28 leadership competencies and has its program overseen by the Office of Leadership and Professional Development;

  4. The Marine Corps has runs the same way as the Air Force, direct supervisors to mentor those in their chain;

  5. The Navy uses a hybrid of formal and informal and voluntary and mandatory mentoring programs and tools.

As I walked into my first job on active duty, I immediately noticed how informal mentoring can be in the Army’s mentoring program. Unfortunately, it included little to nonexistent counseling’s with your superior and the occasional leader seminar where it only addressed topics solely related to how your leaders want you to know. My immediate thoughts were how much can be lacking when mentoring is run according to a top-down approach. Plus, the advisee is not always able to provide authenticity due to current career expectations and perceived judgement that the senior leader may have, especially if you have a difference of opinion.

Fortunately, the second half of my experience has fared better as there are outside organizations such as the ROCKs Inc., and of course, that have constructive processes in place to mentoring. There’s also many social media and messaging apps that young officers like myself immediately check into when arriving at a new duty station to get the ins & outs of places, personnel, job satisfaction etc. Even though frustrating at times, the use of sometimes poor-quality informal mentoring in the military seems have triggered creative ways to meet the demand for it!


Morehouse Collee Public Health Sciences Institute (2011). Project Imhotep Overview.

Military Leadership Diversity Commission (2010, April). Mentoring Programs Across the Service [Issue Paper #33]. Arlington VA

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