This is the second part of a series from Thomas Bishop. Given the coming Juneteenth holiday, this set of articles aims directly at the heart of the challenges the military faces regarding developing and retaining African American leaders.
In Part 1 of “Helping Black Soldiers Succeed Through Mentorship” I laid out the many problems that African American soldiers and officers face in the military. They are promoted at lower rates to senior officer positions, face discipline and UCMJ action, and face barriers that their White counterparts do not face. Part 2 of “Helping Black Soldiers Succeed Through Mentorship” offers approaches to mentorship to help leaders, both White and Black, navigate creating and maintaining mentorship relationships with Black soldiers.
Why Mentorship Matters
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed, the Army mandated calls for senior leaders to conduct listening sessions with their Soldiers called Project Inclusion to “listen to the Soldiers … and identify practices that inadvertently discriminate.” As an Equal Opportunity leader for over a decade and officer of color, I was asked to help facilitate these listening sessions in my organization at the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This organization of over 30 thousand military and civilian employees conducted over 100 listening sessions with Soldiers, leaders, and civilians. I got the opportunity to speak to so many people and learn about what minorities felt they needed to succeed in the organization. But one session I did something different. One session, I took all the Senior Executive Service members (civilian General Officer equivalents) of color aside and I asked them one simple question for our session, “how did you get to where you are today?” Without fail, each person explained how a mentorship relationship changed the course of their life. Each one gave an example of how a leader saw something in them and spent the time to develop their talents and give them opportunities they never thought possible. MENTORSHIP MATTERS.
The fact that mentorship was an important factor in retention and promotion was not a profound realization for me, what was profound was HOW these leaders were mentored. One SES told a story about how a Senior Director at USACE flew to Puerto Rico in the 1990s and interviewed every engineer student at a local university looking for a job. That Director went back to his organization and placed ten resumes in front of his boss and said, “I need you to hire these ten people.” He then worked with and mentored one of those ten who eventually took over the Senior Director position. One woman told the story about how a manager created a development program for women at the organization and pushed her to take new management challenges. She eventually became the youngest female SES at the organization.
These stories helped me reflect on my own story. How a mentor worked to map out a path of development for me, sat me in front of Black generals for counseling, and how she encouraged me at every turn made me believe in myself. She gave me the courage to take on more and more challenges. It was the encouragement I needed that got me into Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Mentorship matters, but how you mentor matters even more.
Mentoring African American Soldiers
Meet them where they are: Mentoring African American soldiers means finding ways of connecting with them and who they are. Many Black officers, for instance, attended HBCUs. This means, for instance, they may not connect with your stories about attending the US Military Academy. You may instead connect with that person by talking to them about Greek life, homecoming weekend, or some other rite of passage all college students have. It also means caring about their culture and not simply asking them to assimilate to yours. Many mentors connect with their mentees and carry ongoing relationships by doing things like going fishing or hunting. Many African American soldiers may connect more with different types of activities, don’t assume they will connect with yours. Find out about the person and meet them where they are.
Stay in the Game: If you are going to do the work of mentoring an African American soldier, stay in the game for the long haul. Connecting with someone is hard work. Connecting with someone who may not share your background is even more difficult. African American soldiers need to know you are there and so that they have a resource to go back to throughout their career. Find people to help you become a better mentor. Find Black men and women to help you along your mentorship journey. Your mentee will respect that you are trying to make a difference for them.
Believe in them: One of the most important things a mentor ever did for me was that she believed in me in ways that I didn’t believe in myself. She told me, “you are great” and talked about all the things she believed I could achieve. She was so convincing that I even started believing her. I reached for higher goals and worked harder because she made me believe it was possible. For African American officers, they must see themselves as Senior Leaders even when they don’t see themselves in their current Senior Leaders. We need mentors who won’t temper their expectations. We need mentors who can expand them.
Sponsor Them: African American soldiers need your coaching, teaching, and mentorship, but they also need your access. You can change an officer’s life by making a call or speaking up for them (even if they never asked). Black officers spend their careers competing with soldiers who share the background, appearance, and access they have never had. They aren’t looking for a handout, they are looking for an opportunity. Your sponsorship is not affirmative action, it is an opportunity that they never had access to. Understanding that fact is a key to mentoring Black soldiers and creating a diverse and equitable force.
I hope that these two articles have helped start a conversation that may spark a transformation in your mentoring of leaders of color.