If you are a civilian fortunate enough to mentor a military veteran, it’s important to understand that the veteran’s experience, skills and outlook might be different from your civilian mentees.
As someone who has mentored many individuals, I’ve learned is that both the mentee and mentor can bring value to the relationship, and receive just as much benefit, if done right.
Below are suggestions for mentoring military veterans:
- Push them out of comfort zone – It’s easy to assume that someone returning to civilian life is returning to something familiar. After all, veterans were civilians before they joined the military. For someone leaving their military career, however, the excitement of what comes next is often combined with fear of the unknown. As their mentor, your job is to reinforce their ideas, beliefs and goals and also help them explore ideas outside of their knowledge base and comfort level. You do this by asking for specifics when your mentee states goals or ideas. “Why are you pursuing a career in intelligence work? What is it specifically about this work that makes you happy and fulfilled?”
- Remain compassionate – Mentoring, and asking for help, might be difficult for your mentee. Military veterans learn to be independent and at the same time, they are trained to work well in teams. For the veteran transitioning to a civilian career, they might feel suddenly without support and his/her “team.” This vulnerability might look like defensiveness or self-protection by your mentee. Tap into your compassion and avoid getting frustrated by their resistance to new ideas.
- Offer specifics -- While we might encourage our mentees to “find their passion” and “lean into their fears,” specifics bring this to life. Share personal experiences where you’ve had to do what you’re asking your mentee to do. When you offer advice, get tactical. Instead of suggesting they start conducting informational interviews, help them create a spreadsheet of knowledge gaps or interests, and then align your contacts (and theirs) into the matrix to set up the meetings. This tactical level of mentoring produces action.
- Connect them with others -- If you have a wide network of contacts and influencers, help your mentee connect. Make introductions via email or phone, and let the mentee take it from there. It is much more comfortable for a veteran to follow up on your introduction than to cold call someone they’ve never met.
- Ask, then listen --When we are eager, we tend not to let other people talk. If you ask your mentee a tough question, and you see they are struggling, don’t rush in to answer for them. Let them ponder the question, consider responses, and decide what feels best to them. Then, if they still struggle, help them resolve the question. Listening is an art. The goal is to learn to hear between the words and listen for intent, meaning and feelings.
- Ask probing questions – Avoid asking “yes” or “no” questions. Your role as a mentor is to guide them towards career success. Asking questions designed to receive a narrative response helps you uncover their true feelings and fears. Instead of asking: “Are you nervous to transition to your next career?” Phrase it as, “What most excites you, and scares you, most about the next step?”
- Clarify boundaries and expectations – Does your mentee think you will introduce him to your business contacts? Do you believe you will be asked to give your mentee pep talks? Setting clear expectations at the outset of the relationship is critical. Discuss with your mentee how you will offer assistance, referrals and guidance.
- Create an action plan – Mentoring can be inspiring and motivating, but if it’s not bound to tactical action steps, your mentee may not progress forward. In the initial meeting, set goals and steps needed to achieve those goals. In each subsequent meeting, refer to that plan and check in. There will be course corrections needed along the way, but the action plan provides a roadmap you both will follow.
- Provide moral support – You may find that your greatest value to your mentee is helping them navigate the highs and lows of the transition and reintegration process. This might mean you listen when they need to vent frustration, or you push them when they are avoiding hard choices, or you offer to meet for coffee when they have a great new idea. Moral support and encouragement is critical during this time, and a mentor who provides this sets the tone for a healthy relationship.
- Stay in touch – Mentees will likely take your advice and begin to act on it quickly. Military veterans are highly trained individuals who are accustomed to acting on advice and instruction. Be sure to check in with your mentee often, providing a sounding board or an opportunity to revise the action plan, if needed. Remember that for many veterans, receiving help from a stranger can feel uncomfortable, and they might be reluctant to follow up and keep you involved in the process for fear of bothering you. Take that role yourself and reach out to your mentee.
The opportunity to mentor a military veteran, active duty service member or military spouse is valuable. I’ve learned more about my own values, goals and business processes by helping guide others.