Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

DEFx 2016 Next Steps: ADF Mentoring Groups

January 18th, 2017 by Kathryn Christie and Kate Tollenaar

DEFx Australia 2016 was a forum on 8-9 Dec 16 where ranks up to Major presented their ideas for an enhanced ADF. The forum demonstrated a ground swell of interest in building Human Capability but also highlighted the gap between our Senior Leaders’ strategic vision for this (issued via Pathways to Change, White Paper 2016, the Ryan Review, and First Principles Review) and the reality at the grassroots level.

Our Mentoring Group initiative was presented and well received by both the DEFx Board and participants. Simpson Barracks Mentoring Group, Melbourne, tested a model which aimed to embed ideas into action within small teams and individuals. The premise of the idea is to get a broad range of men and women from all ranks, units and services, including the APS, in a neutral space, over a catered informal lunch, to discuss topics of their choice. Guest speakers facilitated the discussion on subjects such as cognitive bias, building resilience and sticking to a moral compass.

We found that it was a simple, cost-effective mechanism to embed strategic requirements to culturally reform, educate as well as train, and network broadly across our organisation. This model is a tool that can parallel and support unit-led Professional Military Education (PME) programs. Topics were anchored in Defence strategic guidance and direction, and enhanced through a suggested reading list of podcasts, books, blogs and articles.

After securing resources at DEFx for other Mentoring Groups on ADF bases, the model is now available to be exported. The purpose of this article is to assist people who want to lead a Mentoring Group in ten simple steps.

Step one – Get started. We found the biggest mental hurdle was going from idea to action. Setting a date and making it happen felt both exciting but we also felt a bit vulnerable. Would anyone come? Would critics make things difficult for us? What would it mean if it didn’t succeed? You might feel like this too, but remember – if you believe that there is a place for this at your base, you probably aren’t the only person. This is also a good time to remember you have chain of command support and top cover.

Step two – Find some partners-in-crime. We suggest two people as a minimum:

Firstly you need a friend who is also passionate about furthering ADF PME will make the work fun and will be great support if you find some resistance along the way. Think outside the box – this person may be in a different unit or Service – and this built-in diversity within the leadership will strengthen your Mentoring Group. What we want are Joint Groups, so speak with people in other units or nearby bases. If you don’t know anyone, your counterpart in another unit (for example, Ops to Ops) is a good starting point.

Secondly you should find a mentor. This mentor is essentially the Supervising Officer, someone you backbrief and can speak with about any issues or use for their reach of contacts. We found a LTCOL on base who was very supportive of our idea. Although she was not able to attend meetings, before each one we met to discuss our plan. She added enormous value by giving us extra ideas and resources to consider, pre-empted difficulties we might come across and ensured that, for our effort, we were getting the maximum PME out of each session. When finding a mentor, again, think outside the box. Your best mentor might not be from your unit, service or corps and the different perspective and background will strengthen your project.

Step three – Gain support from your chain of command. Given your Mentoring Group will be for your whole base, you will need approval from the Senior ADF Officer (SADFO). We sent this Minute (feel free to use it as a template) to our SADFO requesting approval to start a group. Giving your Chain of Command a lead Point of Contact into the group will assist base command in supporting and collaborating with your group.

Step four – Find a neutral location. The Simpson Barracks Mentoring Group meets at the Everyman’s Centre (similar to a Sallyman Centre). We usually arrange a table off to the side for a finger-food lunch and drinks, and nearby we set up a large circle of chairs. The neutral setting with a non-hierarchical layout establishes a relaxed atmosphere, encouraging participation and collaboration. We would caution against using a Mess because the purpose of the Mentoring Group is to create a forum for all ranks and Services to take part. Ideas for your location include the base Everyman’s or Salvation Army recreation area, Army History Unit Museum or a base hall or conference centre.

Step five – Find a regular time. Our group meets on the last Thursday lunchtime of each month, except January, February and December due to the base tempo. A regular time creates predictability for participants, gives you an opportunity to focus on the quality of your sessions, and gives your group a momentum throughout the year. Lunchtime is ideal because it does not interfere with Unit Battle Rhythm nor does it take people away from their work responsibilities. The lunchtime timeslot also sets the conditions for a completely voluntary involvement. You can check availability with personnel during the first meeting.

Step six – Advertise. For each meeting, we succinctly described our group, the topic and a suggested reading list in a blurb (again, feel free to use this a template) which we broadcast via the base digital noticeboard through Environment & Infrastructure Group (E&IG). We also have E&IG email everyone on base a fortnight before the meeting, and again the week of the meeting. We place posters with the blurb on noticeboards in high traffic areas on base (gym, AFCANS etc). Consulting with unit commanders and RSMs helps disseminate information throughout the chain of command.

Step seven – Cater. Providing a casual lunch is important because it makes participants feel welcome and generates a feeling of generosity. It also means that junior personnel such as trainees that otherwise need to go to their Mess for a meal can come and be fed. The Postern Association is also able to fund limited catering (just send your concept to posternassociation@gmail.com in order to get started and we’ll talk you through the process). We pre-ordered two platters of baguettes from the local Woolworths deli for less than $90 a meeting (working on 25 people on average) and the Everyman’s representative kindly puts on coffee and tea. It doesn’t cost much to make people feel welcome.

Step eight – Establish good welcoming habits and facilitation techniques. We ensured all the people who turned up felt welcomed, got plenty of food, met new people, and then were comfortable to join the guided discussion. This helped with repeat participation and people bringing their friends next time. Our guided conversations have always worked well, aided by the fact that we actively work to ensure that conversation is productive, respectful, and all opinions in the room are encouraged. We have needed to call time at the end of lunchtime!

As for the actual facilitation, we sent our scope to each key speaker a few weeks beforehand and suggested pre-reading resources that they could add to. The scope focused on how our theme for the meeting (such as change culture, resilience or leadership) related to their service experience and the resources chosen. On the day the Group member would introduce the speaker, hand over to them for the discussion, and have some questions prepared to get things rolling if they didn’t start straight away.  Maximising the time for group discussion is the best way to get the most of each meeting.

Step nine – Construct a training arc. Ask people what topics they want to discuss. Our 2016/17 program is attached for some ideas. Do participants have any contacts for potential key speakers? Get people’s contact details to establish a distribution list. The topics covered should reflect the interests of the group and are limited only to your imagination. We found that interested participants in 2016 have helped create the program in 2017 because of the growing network of people wanting to get involved. There was a wealth of ideas and contacts in the group. The beauty of the model is that many potential guest speakers can come from your base or region; however, you can also apply for funding for interstate visiting speakers through the Postern Association (again, just send your concept to posternassociation@gmail.com in order to get started).

Providing a resource list is important as it ensures that people coming to the group come informed and prepared to discuss the deeper elements of the topic. The reading list also goes out with the advertisement for the meeting, meaning that people that don’t come to the meeting can still learn about our topics and expand their personal reading list. The reading lists we create are short, focused on the topic on hand and include a variety of media including strategic direction or policy and one book, article, podcast and blog.

Step ten – Follow up and keep evolving. After each meeting we email the participants and regular attendees with a follow up thank you, summary of the interesting points of conversation, the reading list again, and a reminder of the next meeting details.

An example of one of these emails is here. This works well for people who cannot attend the meeting. Soon our Group will start a blog on each meeting on the Cove, so that the number of people who can benefit from the PME can increase. Future groups can link in and share ideas and information. We would like to see these mentoring groups network with other groups, think tanks, academic schools etc to figure out if any interesting guest speakers are around, or to find new material for discussion. As part of the evolution, we woulk like to keep in touch with your group via The Cove.

It is important to build a continuity plan into your group. If there is a desire to continue the group after you have posted out, you will need to bring new leadership into your group before you leave.

So, what’s in it for you? By starting your own base Mentoring Group you will expand your network and opportunities for mentoring and facilitate real time PME and cultural change. Apart from being very rewarding in its own right, this is an extra-regimental appointment which can also be included in your PAR, demonstrating and developing your leadership, communication and ability to innovate. We have found that we have grown professionally and personally by working together to establish and run our group – more than even if we have simply participated.

What’s in a name? It’s up to you what you called your group. We used ‘Mentoring Group’ this year, however next year will name the group using an indigenous word from the local indigenous community. The Formation Indigenous Liaison Officer will liaise with the elders to seek permission to use a word which reflects what the Group is about. A working title is The ‘Pindari’ Group – Pindari meaning ‘high ground’, which is fitting from a tactical and ethical point of view. The term ‘Agora’ has been used in US DEF lingo after the ancient Greek meeting places. Again, you can throw this to the group to discuss, there’s likely to be some good ideas.

The whole premise of the Mentoring Groups idea is that it is audience led. If the design doesn’t work, don’t try and force it. Review your idea with the audience, find out what they really want, and change the design to work with this.  Your group will likely take off in quick time, but if it doesn’t – that is ok too. You’ve shown active leadership by getting the process started, will have expanded your network of people and will have gained some resources for your unit’s PME.  We also realise ours is not the only model out there and there are a number of other great initiatives including the DEF Agoras. History also provides examples such as Scharnhorst’s Militarische Gesellschaft.

We hope that others are inspired to start something on their base, and if you are, we are available to discuss your ideas further and support you through the process. We will keep an online presence via The Cove which other groups can connect online to.


How do I make contact?

Do you have questions for Kat and Kate about Mentoring Groups and how to get started? Would you like to share your ideas on mentoring initiatives you already run? Please send your thoughts and/or questions to posternassociation@gmail.com or post a comment below.


About the authors

Majors Kate Tollenaar and Kathryn Christie created the Simpson Barracks Mentoring Group in June 2016 and co-won the DEFx for their idea. Kate is the Officer Commmanding 138 Signals Squadron and Kathryn is studying at Australian Command and Staff College in 2017.

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