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Army Women Create Mentoring Network

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Army is making more of its positions gender neutral but women are still a minority in the rank and file and an even smaller minority in leadership. The new Women's Mentorship Network at Fort Hood, Texas, is designed to move the numbers by cultivating capable, resilient female leadership.

Major Heather Gunther, communications officer for the 3d Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division, sees mentorship as a professional responsibility. She recognizes the math problem: women make up only 17 percent of all active duty forces, and women are underrepresented in the brigade combat team of more than 4,500 soldiers. Those numbers will grow as the Army opens more previously closed positions to women-there could be more than 10,000 positions newly available to women by early next year, and as many as 90,000 in five years. Just a year ago, Major Gunther, a signal officer, could not have served at the Battalion level. Only a man could be the signal officer in a combat arms unit. The Fort Hood cavalry division was one of the pilot units for the Women in the Army research and is now leading the way in gender integration.

"When you look at that many soldiers, and recognize the relatively few women, you feel a real professional responsibility," Gunther said. "There are professional development groups for officers and Fortune 500 companies have employee engagement groups and networks. We wanted something powerful for women in the military."

Gunther and colleagues started by holding brown bag lunches where people could come voluntarily, on their own time, to examine issues women face aspiring to professional growth and leadership. "We had battle buddies up and down and across the installation asking 'can we come,' and before we knew it, there were circles of women meeting everywhere, wanting to expand the conversation to non commissioned officers and junior enlistees. We talked about mentorship, role models, challenges, opportunities, and psycho-social supports."

The Army has a long tradition of male mentoring, and many famed leaders were beneficiaries. Just to name a few, Major General Fox Connor, operations officer for the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, mentored Dwight Eisenhower. While Eisenhower was on his staff, Connor designed a course of study in which Eisenhower did extensive reading in military history and had daily practice writing field orders for every aspect of command. General George Marshall, the Army chief of staff when the U.S. entered World War II, mentored Omar Bradley, who eventually presided over the American D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.

Gunther notes that the Army's senior leadership has cited the need to create conditions and support that will help develop women leaders. She adds that some of her own best mentors have been men, and she wants the new group to empower men to join women in positive, informed discussions. To be inclusive and transparent, the Womens' Mentoring Network (WMN) is open to men and civilians as well as Army women. And as Gunther puts it, the organization has to be "scalable and starfishy." Before coming to Fort Hood, Gunther had been at the Army's general staff college at Fort Leavenworth. While there, she participated in a 2011 leadership development program with Ori Brafman, the author of The Starfish and the Spider, a book about successful organizations that are decentralized and adaptive. She also met Lisa Kimball, a former Plexus Institute president, organizational development leader and skilled facilitator, who has worked with the Army on leadership development. She conferred with both about the WMN and she and colleagues decided to infuse the new venture with some of the processes and practices that had inspired participants in the groups at Fort Leavenworth.

When WMN was launched in January, 60 women attended a clinic directed by Brafman, and since then 19 women have been trained as facilitators who know how to guide discussions and use such techniques as improv, and several Liberating Structures that can quickly identify crucial questions and issues even in a large group. Each facilitator hosts a one hour session according to her schedule, so participants can select the session best suited to their schedules and needs. Facilitators introduce the interactive exercises in ways designed to engage attendees as both mentors and mentees, depending on the situation. In that way, participants can develop relationships, form networks and share resources even when they are deployed.

While WMN members can bring up a range of issues, Gunther says, including controversial ones if they wish, facilitators help keep the discussions focused on professional development and leadership and at the same time maintain military values of respect, service and trust. While women's mentorship initiatives have formed at half a dozen Army bases, not all have generated wide support. One in Georgia that featured the slogan "divas in boots" and offered advice on household tips and couponing aroused the ire of military women who complained it was "too much June Cleaver and too little GI Jane." Gunther doesn't dismiss domestic concerns. She just wants the women in WMN to maintain the vision of career development and a support system that will eventually enrich the Armed Forces with experienced, confident women who are ready to lead when the opportunity arises.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  leadership  scaling 

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