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The Ups and Downs of Mentorship

Army Captain Chioma Odocha is an Army Logistician who graduated from the United States Military Academy. Her previous assignments include company level positions in forward support companies at Camp Liberty, North Carolina and serving as a sustainment brigade Plans Officer at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Most recently she completed command of a Field Maintenance Company at Fort Campbell. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Military Science and an Operations Officer at the University of Connecticut.

Regardless of your chosen profession, as an employee, navigating the workspace with the hopes of progressing can feel intimidating. There may even be uneasiness as you become aware of specific skills, people, and the overall ins and outs of the organization you may need to understand better. Why not learn from others who have been in your shoes? A solution to this uneasiness is mentorship. Seeking out more experienced people in your organization or field of work is an essential act of agency. You are putting yourself in the driver seat and playing an active role in your career.

I am writing from the perspective of an Army officer whose profession not only encourages but demands that its leaders maintain an active role in all aspects of their scope of responsibility, including personal development. Luckily, there are an abundance of senior leaders who can offer a helping hand in this transformative process. Through this article, I hope to reinvigorate anyone and everyone in the position to mentor by highlighting the benefits of mentorship and the pitfalls of mentorship gatekeeping, mentors controlling and limiting counsel to mentees, and access to resources.


So, what is mentorship? There are numerous definitions, and I define mentorship as the advice a mentor, or someone with more experience and trustworthiness, provides to a mentee, someone seeking guidance. The mentor and mentee must develop a relationship and mutual participation for a successful mentorship process. Mentorship can be a transformative experience with benefits impacting the mentee and the mentor. Through clear direction and motivation, mentees can improve their soft skills and abilities related to problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, and creativity. These attributes are relevant to any field of work and are essential traits to maintain. Mentors can also help their mentees network, provide exposure to new opportunities, and offer access to more people in their related fields. Mentors can impart a wide breadth of knowledge to mentees about specific skills and insights into their organization's inner workings. Plus, mentors can reflect on their own experiences and identify methods to support and engage with their mentees. Mentorship is an excellent way to learn tacit knowledge or information through experience and close the gap between potential and performance. Ideally, every subordinate should have a mentor. With all the known benefits of mentorship, what happens when potential mentors become gatekeepers?

I believe everyone loses. Junior employees miss opportunities for professional growth, mentors are not challenged by mentoring various mentees, and the organization could face talent management issues. Has there been a time when someone withheld valuable information from you, such as a meeting or job opening, or kept you from meeting with certain people? If so, someone may have denied you access to an opportunity. Sometimes, this behavior is overt or done subconsciously for various reasons. There may be implicit biases driving decision-making and undermining potential mentor relationships. People can be biased based on race, gender, age, accent, socioeconomic background, physical abilities, and more. Mentorship gatekeeping falls back on implicit biases to keep possible mentees at bay. Only certain employees may receive mentorship because of particular traits mentees find desirable. As a result, for reasons outside their control, some potential leaders miss the opportunity to broaden their skills and network, ultimately falling behind their peers due to bias. 

Organizations hoping to train and retain recruits, such as the Army, model the future of its well-being based on the potential of junior personnel. Poorly trained employees limit professional growth as the number of qualified applicants for more senior positions decreases. Also, mentorship gatekeeping contributes to an unhealthy work climate, undermining organizations' goals of identifying and maintaining well-trained and capable employees. Knowledge is, in fact, power and serves as an investment into the future of any organization. When mentors opt out of creating formal or informal mentor relationships, the profession loses tacit knowledge from one generation of professionals to another, and networks expand. More senior employees keep their skills and experiences to themselves and fail to give back to the community they once were part of. If you are in the position to mentor or have mentored in the past, please take the time to reflect on whether or not you have been a gatekeeper yourself. Consider your mentees and ask yourself if they are diverse in background, thought, abilities, gender, and ethnic background. Additionally, please reflect on any missed opportunities to mentor a junior employee and potential inequities people may experience within your organization.

Everyone should be open to participating in mentorship. It is the ultimate investment into the future of whatever field of work or organization you are a part of. If mentorship gatekeeping did not exist, more people could reach their potential sooner and feel supported throughout their journey. We all have experiences and advice to share, so let mentorship facilitate knowledge exchanges and transformative growth. Mentor someone today and sow the seeds of success tomorrow.

Our future generations are counting on us.


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