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Mentorship: It’s a Two-Sided Network

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Our newest post comes from West Point Academy Professor, Blackhawk pilot, and former battalion commander Colonel Hise Gibson. Having recently served as a Military Fellow at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and as a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Business School, his experiences both in academia and first line Army leadership are laudable. Here he discusses the responsibility of the mentee in the establishment and maintenance of the mentoring relationship and gives practical example in how to do it. 

Mentorship typically occurs over time as the senior leader takes notice of the junior leader AND the junior leader observes and learns from the senior leader. It blossoms over time and is a unique and special relationship. To be clear “Senior” is not solely defined by age but could also be measured in experience in particular field or industry.

During my time as a junior field-grade officer, I was assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics. Although my primary mission was to “educate, train, and inspire” our future leaders, I was at the mid-point in my career as an Army officer and wanted to set the conditions in order to be competitive to serve as a tactical battalion commander of an Aviation organization. The next step on my journey would be critical and I recognized I did not have all the answers.

Like many high-performing individuals, it is not only one’s own knowledge, skills, and behaviors that create opportunities. The more important components are the relationships an individual can establish and transform into meaningful mentor-mentee engagements. The reality is that this is a bottom-up endeavor that requires the mentee to take the lead. There are many perspectives that can be gained from a pool of senior leaders or those who have taken the path one wishes to travel. I had to recognize this and take the first step.

The best part about being at West Point was that I could leverage the collective knowledge of senior leaders. I developed a plan and strategically engaged as many leaders as possible to provide me a holistic perspective. I had the opportunity to gain professional development from then Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Michael, a Regimental Tactical Officer, who is now Brigadier General Michael, Deputy Commanding General of Training at Fort Leavenworth. Then Colonel Ron Clark, Director of the Simon Center, now Major General Clark, Chief of Staff for United States Pacific Command, then Colonel Bernie Banks, now Brigadier General (retired) Banks, Associate Dean of Kellogg School of Management, and Brigadier General Mike Linnington, then Commandant of Cadets, now Lieutenant General(Retired) Linnington who the Chief Executive Officer of the Wounded Warrior Project. All of these individuals had commanded at the battalion level and some at the Brigade level. They all had a perspective on what attributes were key for success as a field grade officer. I just had to engage them and develop a relationship. Although, I had never served with any of these phenomenal leaders prior to my arrival at West Point, the relationship that we established then has remained.

The experience at West Point distilled the reality that mentorship is a two-sided network. The mentee on one-side and the mentor on the other. This network is most efficient when it is foundationally supported by the mentee. It requires the mentee to develop a sustained engagement strategy to keep the mentor abreast of the needs, wants, and desires in order for the mentor to determine where they can best engage and support. The mentor is normally a high-performing individual who is extremely busy and who wants to give back and sees it as their duty but is oversaturated with five-meter targets and ten-meter targets that do not provide the necessary trade-space to actively engage in consistent mentoring activities. That does not mean they cannot engage; I am implying that there are environmental realities that consumes their internal bandwidth.

For mentees, here are some recommended steps to manage the network: 

1) Develop a mentor check-in battle rhythm.

a. This could be monthly/quarterly/semi-annually. It is just a consistent way for the mentee to engage mentors to keep them abreast of your current and future situations.

b. For example, there are technology platforms like Marco Polo. I have a colleague who does weekly check-ins with his entire Army network. It is fast and efficient.

2) Identify a broad board of directors and an advisory council.

a. The board of directors are a close group of mentors who you engage often for advice on an array of issues.

b. The advisory council are those individuals who provide perspective on niche situations.

3) Get over yourself.

a. Individuals you identify as mentors are busy. Do not be discouraged if they do not immediately respond.

b. Do self-assessments to better understand your individual blind spots and create a deliberate plan to overcome your shortcomings.

You can be very successful in life and the Army without a mentor. However, a mentor can help you see blind spots or explain what is happening around the corner (next year, next phase, next decade, etc.). Do not feel compelled to go out and search for a mentor. Allow your life and work experiences to give you opportunities. Be patient.

Mentorship is essential to success in any domain. Like any important activity, it requires deliberate engagement and a recognition of what side of the network you are on and play your position. Even once you transition from being a mentee to a mentor of many, you are always striving to be better which means you never truly leave the mentee position. We are all someone’s mentee.

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