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Mentoring When Corrective Advice is Warranted

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

This new post is from Chevy’s former Command and General Staff small group instructor, eMMissary, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Mr. Brook Allen who is an Assistant Professor, in the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations at Fort Gordon, GA. He has written for us before, and this time he tackles the tough topic of mentoring through potentially negative feedback.

One of the hardest parts of mentorship is when correction or constructive criticism is required. Too frequently, mentors are reluctant to give the proverbial cough syrup to a mentee, who reciprocally does not want the cough syrup without a little sugar to make it go down. This article looks at the role of the mentor when corrective advice is warranted.

It is human nature to dislike criticism or correction from others. When discussing the importance of giving constructive feedback with others who are in a mentor position, we generally agree it is usually the most difficult part in the relationship. As a mentor, the corrective and constructive guidance you provide is crucial for professional and personal growth of those you mentor. Simply put, you will not be helping a mentee grow if you only tell them what they are doing right.

My most admired mentor as a young Army officer was Brigadier General Peter Schoomaker (who would later become the Army Chief of Staff). I had the privilege of being his Aide-de-Camp when he entered the general officer ranks. The mentoring relationship began my first day as his aide, and it was articulated with what would become the most profound, prophetic, and encouraging eight-word sentence – “Do not let me walk into an ambush.” In very simple prose, I was immediately given a general officer’s trust, reliance, expectation, and end state. As an infantry officer I understood what an ambush was, and why one must mitigate such obstacles. However, I learned quickly BG Schoomaker meant so much more than a horrific and kinetic event on a battlefield. It was about life, where obstacles prevent us from enhancing our personal and professional growth.

My accomplishments as an Aide-de-Camp, along with the occasional praise from my general were of course, fulfilling and exhilarating. Making noteworthy achievements or meeting the general’s expectations enhanced my confidence and reassured me that I was meeting the expectations of my boss. However, it was the chastening and correction I received from BG Schoomaker that had the most positive affect on me and my professional growth. As a mentor, he understood discipline and correction were co-equals to teaching and encouraging me as a young First Lieutenant.

Etiquette was not my cup of tea. Truth be told, as a young and immature lieutenant the whole idea of military customs, traditions, and even regulatory guidance concerning protocol and ethics were very low on my professional priorities. As a brash, gung-ho, and highly competitive infantry officer I prioritized making my general look good in front of others. Initially, I would schedule the best source of transportation, five-star hotels for TDYs, and naturally I would be along for the ride. My eagerness also included using my position of Aide-de-Camp to manipulate subordinate unit commanders to create an aesthetically pleasing venues for meetings or exercises BG Schoomaker would attend.

One morning, about one-month into the job, BG Schoomaker called me into his office. This time he asked me to shut the door and have a seat. To my chagrin, he had observed what I had been doing and likely heard from others I had placed more emphasis on looks than practicalities. Worse, some of the initiatives I performed were borderline ethical violations, especially when money and travel regulations were involved. In other words, I was unintentionally setting up ambushes for him that could have lessened his ability to exhibit the BE-KNOW-DO values we admired most in our general officers. What could have been a termination of employment and accompanied by a deserved chewing out, instead became a mentoring session that focused on short term problems, mid-term expectation for refinement, and lifelong applications. All of which were designed to make me a better commissioned officer.

If you are in the mentoring role, understand silence is not an attribute of mentoring. In fact, not only is silence a detriment for a vibrant mentoring relationship, it nullifies professional growth for both parties. The lack of communication derives from apathy, resistance, or a total lack of trust between mentor and mentee.

Simple ways to give constructive feedback to a mentee:

– Prepare for the discussion by reviewing previous counseling notes – Identify and understand the issue.

– Identify the obstacle, the ambush, the mentee is facing.

– Prepare a written 1-2 sentence declarative or interrogative problem statement – a tangible written product.

– Identify an approach to providing the feedback, such as, the Socratic method where the mentee is navigated into the area that needs improvement, and allow him/her to discover their own options to make corrective actions; OR use a “Sandwich Method” of delivering correction by the following dialogue – Good critique + Constructive criticism/encouragement + Good critique.

– Conduct your mentoring session in a safe space, that allows the time and space for a frank and honest discussion.

– Wrap-up the meeting by journaling all that was discussed, with a goal to achieve a buy-in by the mentee to improve in the specified area(s).

So, let us agree as mentors not to remain silent when the bad tasting cough syrup must be given to our mentee. Our constructive feedback validates the relationship with those we care about personally and professionally – and perhaps, helps them to avoid walking into an ambush.

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