Josh Bowen is a 12-year US Army officer and a member of Military Mentors’ eMMissary cohort 4. He curates a blog, 3x5 Leadership, to help equip and inspire others to be more intentional leaders. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
Mentorship is hard. Amidst almost overwhelmingly busy work schedules and demands, purposeful mentorship relationships require additional time, attention, and effort on top of that to nurture continued growth. Though we intrinsically value the developmental impacts as mentors and mentees, this challenge remains a constant – balancing time and effort towards mentorship versus the routine demands of life and work. We often end up squeezing in lunch-time meetings, commute phone calls, delaying phone calls until late night after we put our kids to bed, or unfortunately resort to mere email or text messaging conversations.
Mentorship within the military is even harder. Consider the additional challenges of routine moves, increased distance between members, deployments, consistent training exercises, and more. These added layers can make it seem nearly impossible to maintain meaningful, long-term mentorship relationships with those we care about both as mentors and mentees.
It is important to understand the science and theory of effective mentorship, yes. But given these obstacles and the seemingly constant growing demands for our time, it is becoming even more important to leverage strategies to make our mentorship relationships efficient as well as effective.
Below I offer two learned strategies to help make mentorship relationships intentional, effective, and also efficient. These can be applied as a mentor, as a mentee, and even as a peer within peer mentorship relationships.
Strategy 1 – Virtual Group Mentoring
Following a standard one-to-three-year tour at a duty station, what becomes of our mentorship relationships when members depart? Not all relationships must continue after a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), but there are creative ways we can continue relationships of interest thanks to technology.
One way is to create a virtual mentorship chat group through apps like WhatsApp or GroupMe. Doing so provides several benefits, both to the mentor and the mentees. First, you can sustain conversations without having to dedicate blocks of your day toward them. You can contribute as you have time (between meetings, when you first get to the office, at home, etc.) or ask questions as they arise. Second, making it a group chat enables numerous members to learn from one another’s’ questions, ideas, lessons learned, and resources shared. These things can be issues not even on a member’s mental radar yet, potentially helping to prevent this issue becoming one for them in the future. Third, it builds a community of practice, providing a broader perspective for mentees through the conversations. Mentees like junior officers can easily feel isolated, as if their specific organizational and leadership challenges are unique. This can become detrimental to their motivation over time. Virtual group mentorship chats, especially with ones where members vary across organizations and duty stations, can provide everyone with a broader perspective that their challenges are not so different than their peers’. Fourth, the routine group contact can keep lines of communication open between mentor and individual mentee in the event the mentee seeks individualized mentorship. It’s much easier to reach out to a mentor asking for their time on a phone call given you interact daily or weekly virtually than it would if you did not.
Below are a few considerations if you are a mentor interested in employing virtual group mentorship chats:
Be mindful of the platform you use. Internationally based or deployed members cannot likely use text message groups or certain apps.
As a mentor, do you create a network of multiple mentorship chats with members in each one sharing specific commonalities like everyone having served together at your previous unit before PCSing? Or do you group based on other common demographics? Or do you create one chat and add members as they enter your network? I don’t believe there is a right answer but be mindful of the opportunities and consequences of each. If you continue to build a single chat, will mentees be comfortable in being vulnerable with one another if they don’t know each other well?
Think through chat group size. What is the right size range for what you want to accomplish? Too few, you may not get sufficient diversity of perspective. Too many, members may hide or not participate. Be thoughtful in the size of your group(s).
Consider creating some sort of informal contract with members before you start a group, or they join one. Clarify why the group exists, goals of the group, and expected norms within the chat.
Strategy 2 – Maintain a Mentorship Roster
The tyranny of time and distance within military mentorship relationships creates another common issue – we can go months and years without connecting with one another if we don’t deliberately make an effort to. It’s not that we (as mentor or mentee) don’t care, it’s just easy to let work and life at our new duty stations consume our time.
Mentors and mentees alike have responsibilities to maintain the relationship, especially in staying in routine contact. Whether reading as a mentor or a mentee, I encourage you to build and use a mentorship roster to help in staying in contact with your mentors, peers, and mentees. Below are the steps I take to build and apply my roster.
This roster captures everyone I wish to remain in contact with long-term. I simply use an Excel document and create a tab for mentors, peers, and mentees. Within each tab, I list the person’s name, rank, nature of our relationship (when/where we worked together, etc.), their contact information (appropriate for our relationship like military or personal email, phone, mailing address), notes about them (current job, previous jobs, family details and names, birthdays, etc.), and the date we were last in contact.
I update this roster every week as part of my “professional habits.” I select five people to contact that week. I select the ones I haven’t been in contact with the longest and I add that as a to-do task at work that week. I also update the information for those I contacted last week with the new date of last contact and any other relevant information gained from our interaction on the roster.
When I email mentors, peers, and mentees, I aim to keep it light and simple. I aim to keep the email as short as possible and share at least two, if not all three below topics:
A personal update about my life, family, and work.
Gratitude for their impact on me. I try to share a personal anecdote or memory, especially if it is something I used or did recently that they taught me.
A recent resource I read/listened to like a book, article, or podcast episode that made me think of them.
All these variables together help make the email personal and special. I always enjoy the wonderful responses I get back, especially if I have not heard from that person in a year or so. This roster and email system enables me to maintain contact with those I want to every six to nine months, which I feel is appropriate for me. If you wish to increase or reduce contact time, adjust how many people you choose to contact each week.
I hope these two strategies can equip mentors and mentees alike in efficiently maintaining purposeful, deep relationships long-term. While I value the work necessary to make mentorship relationships successful, I also continue to learn the need to optimize these relationships to balance them with work, life at home, as well as my desire to stay connected with an ever-growing population of mentors and mentees.