The Road to Mentoring: Paved with Good Intentions

Article excerpt

Mentorship is a hot topic in academia, business, and the military. Recently, Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Gross said it was evident from the Educational Resources Information Center's annual list of publications that virtually nobody was writing about "mentors and mentoring" in the 1970s, as only 33 articles appeared for that entire decade. He adds, however, "Then the topic took off: 230 pieces in 1980-84; 597 in 1985-89; 1,051 in 1990-94; l,524 in 1995-99." (1) In February 2002, a subject keyword search (using the term "mentor") of Wilson Omnifile, an academic database of articles and publications, resulted in over 2,000 hits. Reflecting this trend, new mentorship web pages are being born across the internet. (2) Consultants have sprung up, promising that if only managers were better mentors, their profitability and retention of precious human capital would improve dramatically. A survey of Fortune 500 executives indicated that 96 percent of them saw mentoring as an important influence in their prof essional development. (3) In some organizations, coaches and mentors are assigned and duties are formally outlined. Young professionals are encouraged to actively seek out people they admire to "be their mentors," as a way to accelerate their learning, development, and career progression.

Despite the widespread interest in mentoring and hopes that it presents potential for addressing a myriad of problems, the concept is not well understood within the Army. The term "mentorship" has different connotations and currently is used so loosely in describing such an array of leadership and human behaviors that well-meaning, intelligent people often talk past each other when trying to discuss it. The term elicits a wide range of responses, from enthusiastic endorsement to adamant cynicism, with confusion in between. In a recent Army War College strategy research project, Merrill Anderson-Ashcraft conducted a content analysis of 64 essays on mentoring submitted by members of the USAWC Class of 2002. Although most essays included positive and negative comments, she observed that 71 percent of the statements in the papers addressed negative aspects of mentoring. Further analysis indicated that misunderstandings regarding mentoring goals, strategies, and implementation methods are a core problem contributi ng to confusion and cynicism. (4)

The purpose of this article is to help inform the developing dialog by assessing the current treatment of the mentoring concept in today's Army and then highlighting the issues, implications, and alternatives relative to a formal Army Mentorship Program. We believe that unless the concept and implications of a program are carefully reevaluated, this potentially useful leadership concept may remain a confusing cliche--or worse, a euphemism for favoritism--causing it to actually undermine the desired leadership environment.

Defining the Problem

Informal mentoring relationships have long existed in the Army, although they lacked definition as such until the 1980s when the term mentorship entered the business and academic lexicon. Recently, as part of a comprehensive description of future and ongoing actions to improve training and leader development, General Eric K. Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the Army, announced that the Army has developed the framework for the Army Mentorship Program. (5) Citing survey results that found "disconnects between what we as an Army believe and what we do in practice," General Shinseki articulated that we "need to adjust our culture, get back to our roots in training, improve officer leader development and management, and establish healthy feedback to inform the force and make adjustments where necessary." (6)

In an Army Times interview, General John Keane, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, stated that the "quality of leadership--as reflected in the mentoring process--has fallen off. …