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Leadership Corner: Mentoring Part 1
March 22, 2019

By Elizabeth A. Rosso

Now that last month’s post has us all talking to each other, let’s take a look at what we’re doing with our newly polished communication skills. Specifically, I want to look at how we’re communicating to bring others forward in their careers. Are we mentoring?
 
Mentoring, like so much of life, is a two-way street. You can be a mentor and you can be mentored, often simultaneously. This post will focus on mentoring, and I’ll save being mentored for next time.
 
Whether we know it or not, we are all mentors. Now, you may be thinking, “Wait! I never signed up to be anyone’s mentor. My company doesn’t even have a mentoring program yet.” That may be true, but it doesn’t take a formal program to make you a mentor.
 
Remember those organic interactions I talked about when I kicked off the Leadership Corner? In part, what I had in mind was those types of mentoring relationships that form out of simple daily interactions. There is so much you can teach someone just by inviting them to spend part of their day with you. For example, early in my JAG career I was fortunate to work for a JAG who routinely allowed me to tag along on whatever he was doing, whether that was a meeting with the Commanding Officer, coffee with his peers, or a walk to another command to drop off paperwork for a pending trial. Each of those activities taught me something about my role as an attorney as well as a Naval officer.
 
Did my boss have to do that? Of course not. He was not the mentor assigned to me as part of the Navy JAG Corps’ formal mentoring program. He could have kept me in my box, so to speak, and left me to focus only on my narrow set of duties without ever showing me the bigger picture. But he understood the importance of mentoring, and was simply trying to develop a junior officer in a way that was natural and didn’t cost anything, and that was more effective than providing an academic explanation of what to do should I ever find myself in one of those scenarios. Perhaps even better, it showed me how to lead and develop the subordinates I would have one day.
 
This isn’t to say that formal mentoring programs are ineffective. To the contrary, they can be highly effective if implemented properly, and if all parties are interested in their success and put forth the necessary time and effort. But in my opinion, something is lost if an organization focuses only on those types of structured programs and foregoes the more natural interactions that are often so fruitful.
 
It does seem that it’s easier to nurture organic mentoring relationships in the public sector, where everyone’s time essentially is paid for in advance–as long as the work gets done, no one cares if, for example, you spend an hour simply listening and learning at a meeting you don’t otherwise need to attend. In the private sector, there is pressure to be productive and profitable and to demonstrate return on investment. This pressure to be productive can make supporting informal interactions feel like a drain on resources that could be spent more profitably elsewhere. But there are intangible benefits that flow from organic interactions that should not be ignored simply because they are difficult to quantify. Learning how to lead others and how to build rapport with opponents are skills that will take an organization far if it creates an environment that encourages its people to develop those skills.
 
The experience I described above is a more traditional, senior-mentoring-junior scenario. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, though, and could be peers or subordinates rather than more experienced colleagues. To harken back to my Navy experience one more time: most new JAGs are fresh from law school and have no prior military experience. They have some idea how to be lawyers, but virtually no idea about the day-to-day workings of the Navy. In that respect, they are in dire need of military mentors. Navy Legalmen fill that role. Legalmen are enlisted paralegals. They are neither officers nor attorneys, but they have years of military service under their belts, and they are trained and experienced in “leading up.” They are the ones who shape the new JAGs and help them navigate (no pun intended) the military environment. And although they are junior in rank to even the newest JAG, they are relied on and looked to by all of us without question, throughout our careers.
 
Of course, being a mentor is only half of the equation. The other half of the equation is being the mentee–and being a mentee means being willing to listen and learn, regardless of who is doing the teaching. More on that next time.
 



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