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How the military turned 'mentorship' into a paying profession

Last time I checked, a "mentor" was someone who works for free. Someone who selflessly shares his or her expertise. A leader who volunteers time and talent to help up-and-comers in the field. (Except, of course when a mentor turns on you--good advice on surviving mentors gone bad is here.)

But that's not always the case, apparently, in the armed forces. The military's "senior mentors" are back in the news again, this time because the Pentagon isn't clear yet on how many of the retired officers comply with a new order designed to limit outsize pay and avoid conflicts of interest.

USA Today reported on Friday that the armed services now have until July 31 to report how many of their senior mentors, originally brought in as contractors to advise active-duty officers, have been converted to government employees.

That's a delay from the original July 1 deadline set by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He ordered that these retirees be paid no more than $179,000 a year and be reclassified as temporary employees, or "highly qualified experts," which forces them to disclose outside business ties.

A little background: The military's mentor controversy (yes, I know, that's an oxymoron in the corporate world, where such programs are often exceedingly bland) erupted last year following a USA Today investigation. It found that retired officers, many of whom also served as consultants or directors to private defense contractors, were getting paid big bucks--as much in a day as an Army private makes in a month, Sen. Carl Levin (D, Mich.) said in a hearing--to advise current military leaders.

Pay rates soared as high as $440 an hour, the newspaper found, many times what the leaders would have made in their old jobs. Some of the hired hands received pensions of up to $220,000 a year on top of the cushy pay.

The military may have simply labeled these contractors "mentors," when they were in fact well-compensated advisers. But this is more than just a matter of semantics. The proliferation of these senior mentors--the extended deadline implies a difficulty in tracking their numbers--suggests a potential shortage of in-house leadership training at the very top of our nation's armed forces.

Of course, the most alarming issue here is the conflict of interest that could arise if a senior mentor is getting paid, and handsomely, by both the military and a private corporation. But I also wonder what the senior mentor program says about the armed forces' leadership bench if it must bring back so many retired generals to advise its current brass.

The outsize pay suggests that it's hard to pry these retirees away from their lucrative private sector jobs and that the military feels compelled to dangle whatever the market demands to tap their needed expertise.

I'm all for bringing in sage retirees to impart their wisdom--to a point. No doubt these consultants--let's call a spade a spade--have been a valuable resource to the current command. But if an organization becomes so dependent on outsiders that it's willing to pay staggering fees for their counsel, not to mention risk conflict of interest in the process, something is out of whack.

More in-house expertise should be retained, and young leaders should spend more time with top officers before they retire. In some places, they call that mentoring.

By Jena McGregor

 |  July 13, 2010; 9:50 AM ET |  Category:  Military leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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But I also wonder what the senior mentor program says about the armed forces' leadership bench if it must bring back so many retired generals to advise its current brass.
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Well, I'm not here to justify PAYING these folks for their mentoring, but I think you really miss the point. THey are not hired as mentors because the bench is thin, and the military is not "dependent" on them. It is simply prudent and common sense to take advantage of the decades of experience these people have. After all, that's experience that potentially cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Best to get all we can from them.

But should they get a big paycheck for mentoring. Surely not.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | July 13, 2010 4:07 PM

As I read this article, I am reminded of Hal Moore's advice to company commanders, quoted in "We were soldiers Once." Paraphrased also by Hackworth in "About Face."

If officers listened to their enlisted staffs, and kept their mouths shut as much as possible the first 3 months on the job, they would experience far more success.

The Pentagon, as any objective human being with a formal education and the ability to distinguish between flag waving and reality will know, wastes more money than any federal agency. The history of the Department of Defense since the National Security Act of 1947 is filled with massive cost overruns, abominable pay practices, severe discrepancies in pay, purchases of poorly designed and flawed equipment, and the creation of a rift between managers and leaders.

I truly am pro-military. Yet as an objective, intelligent human I abhor how the Pentagon has secured its funding by wrapping itself in patriotism at every turn, building cozy relationships with contractors, and far too frequently compromising the integrity and safety of its infantry divisions by purchasing poorly designed weapons systems. Also, I love how when people criticize the pentagon, every member of the military is suddenly "putting their life on the line." Unless they wear a CIB, or serve in combat arms, they are not putting their lives on the line. In Vietnam there were 7 logistical staff for every one combat soldier. Lets face it - a lot of these senior military people are the same middle manager types that get canned in every corporate layoff.

My point here is, this program sounds redundant and silly. Sort of like missile defense.

Posted by: GarmeyT | July 13, 2010 3:48 PM

Pgould1 is absolutely correct. I spent a career in the military and my last 4 were spent in a large command function. I saw senior mentors in action daily.

Old Generals never retire, if they don't want to. They still travel on the govt dime, get all the perks of being a General, develop policy and attend policy meetings, and in some cases even make and conduct policy.

In this day and age there is no reason a senior mentor can't be available by VTC, phone, or online video and email. I've seen senior mentors travel regularly to sites only to spend most of their time wining, dining, and socializing.

OldAtlantic asks if it isn't better to have old mentor guys teach people not to get their arms and legs shot off. This assumes the old mentor guy is actually competent. They should have taught this while still on active duty. Unless you can show me that no one got their arms and legs shot off on the old mentor guy's watch, then what do they have to teach?

Most senior mentors helped create the problems they are now "helping" to fix. That makes no sense.

Posted by: agolembe | July 13, 2010 3:17 PM

Sorry for the double posting--I blame the internet...well, I would but it's just my bad fat fingering....

Posted by: mil1 | July 13, 2010 3:06 PM

"You would think that these men (and occasional women) would a, be flattered that their wisdom and leadership is still valued and b, be grateful for the continued opportunity to serve the nation that they love, and serve as senior mentors on an expenses only basis."

________________

These people are in their 40s and 50s--they are still of value but have had their pay capped since they became generals (their retired pay is not capped, leading to some to be paid more in retirement then on active duty!). The cap is due to civilians thinking that generals are not civil servants but executives--besides it would not due to pay them more than their civilian counterparts.

Mentors by definition can be paid or unpaid--WAPO "journalists" again refuse to do any research or due diligence.

Why hire people? read TP102 above. Those mentors aren't for the junior briefers--they are for those new generals who don't realize that they are asking the wrong questions in the wrong way to get the answers they need. No one but a general can tell a general this---just like CEOs. Too bad business doesn't have CEO mentors--we might have fewer mistakes in investments and abuse of people.

Posted by: mil1 | July 13, 2010 3:05 PM

"You would think that these men (and occasional women) would a, be flattered that their wisdom and leadership is still valued and b, be grateful for the continued opportunity to serve the nation that they love, and serve as senior mentors on an expenses only basis."

________________

These people are in their 40s and 50s--they are still of value but have had their pay capped since they became generals (their retired pay is not capped, leading to some to be paid more in retirement then on active duty!). The cap is due to civilians thinking that generals are not civil servants but executives--besides it would not due to pay them more than their civilian counterparts.

Mentors by definition can be paid or unpaid--WAPO "journalists" again refuse to do any research or due diligence.

Why hire people? read TP102 above. Those mentors aren't for the junior briefers--they are for those new generals who don't realize that they are asking the wrong questions in the wrong way to get the answers they need. No one but a general can tell a general this---just like CEOs. Too bad business doesn't have CEO mentors--we might have fewer mistakes in investments and abuse of people.
________________
"They are paid well (not fabulously, but well) and virtually all retire at 75% of their active duty pay."

yes, generals are well paid to spite the fact that their pay is held at 4 grades lower then what they chart says they should make. But again they retire with what base pay should have been--and at 40 years they retire at 100 percent of base pay. At 30 years they retire at 80 percent of base pay--Congress made this possible 5 years ago.

Still they make less than most large company CEOs and they even make less than President Obama did before he was a congressman....In the 19th century military officers had to be independently wealthy to be officers as they got almost no pay and unlike enlisted soldiers had to buy their own horse and equipment as well as their uniform (they still buy their own uniforms). So mentoring (which is way older than WAPO chose to tell) was a way of making money after "retirement" which offered no compensation.

If you beef is that they shouldn't be with a defense industry--fine enough; Congress can put a stop to that. If you beef is they get paid better than you---tell me when was the last time a poster here who is complaining about a general's retirement (in this day and age) put their life and the lives of their family at risk the way these mentors have?

Posted by: mil1 | July 13, 2010 3:03 PM

We're always hearing nonsense about how federal workers are overpaid compared to the rest of the work force. Just remember that these "mentors" making $440/hour (that's equivalent to $900K/year), and congressmen, judges, generals, SESs, etc. making $174K/year (or more) are being lumped together with rank-and-file civil servants (making $60K/year).

Posted by: dmm1 | July 13, 2010 2:54 PM

Many top rank officers hang on as long as possible to retire with the max pay. Just a revolving door. Army164 is very correct in his comments.

Posted by: cgray0 | July 13, 2010 2:27 PM

The senior mentors I work with daily provide a valuable function that no-one on this page has any knowledge of. Our staff here routinely briefs brigadier general officers on a wide variety of subject matters -- the briefers are junior in grade to the target audience, which can raise issues of credibility when junior officers are lecturing to senior ones -- the senior mentors role is to intervene and answer questions that arise when the one stars in the audience raise difficult questions and demand answers. It pays to have retired three and four star officers sitting in the audience to offer guidance and perspective as needed. They fullfill a valuable role and our unit would have an immensely more difficut time operating both in the field and in the classroom without their input, guidance and invaluable experience. In fact our jobs would be well nigh impossible to do without mentor active participation. In all the bellyaching Ive seen about money not one pitchfork wielder out there has asked the question as to what are the mentors doing and what specific service are they providing? Its more than you imply and valued by more than you credit here.

Posted by: TP102 | July 13, 2010 2:25 PM

This entire program is a joke and a disgrace, not to mention yet another example of Pentagon waste (and I worked there a few times during my 30 year Navy career). I've been on a few exercises that featured these retired 'mentors' and they contributed absolutely nothing in return for the fat paychecks they collected. Gates should kill it but lacks the guts to take on the brass.

Posted by: mwleonard | July 13, 2010 1:26 PM

There is nothing surprising here. The "military mentors" are nothing more than another class of Beltway parasites. What is even more troubling is how our military has morphed into Praetorian mercenaries! David G. Ward (Vietnam 68')

Posted by: dgward44 | July 13, 2010 1:14 PM

DoD priorities. 1) Defend America. 2) Get paid.

No one should be suprised by this.

Posted by: Aerowaz | July 13, 2010 1:09 PM

Nobody "works for free" not even a mentor you silly, military-loathing WaPo hack.

Nor do you own the usage of the word "mentor".

Posted by: screwjob17 | July 13, 2010 12:11 PM

Think the lead in the comment hits the nail on the head. You would think that these men (and occasional women) would a, be flattered that their wisdom and leadership is still valued and b, be grateful for the continued opportunity to serve the nation that they love, and serve as senior mentors on an expenses only basis. The current arrangement (which I am positive will be changed) was just another way for defense corporations to make more bucks off of the government. When these senior mentors worked as independent sub-contractors, the parent corporation typically gets a minimum of ten percent or more of the amount billed. But that is really the lesser part of my complaint. We have a military bloated at the top, with more general and flag officers now then served during World War II even though our armed forces are about 10% of the size of the force mobilized to fight that war. They are paid well (not fabulously, but well) and virtually all retire at 75% of their active duty pay. The idea that we supplement their income to the degree we have with the various mentoring programs is insane. OK guys and gals, time for you all to step up to the plate --- if you want to mentor, fine, mentor. Time to pay us back for all the fun you've had in the throty plus years you served. But it isn't a second job.

Posted by: army164 | July 13, 2010 12:08 PM

As a retired military officer and former Desert Storm company commander I am going to suggest that the described "military mentor" program is little more than an institutional boondoggle designed by high ranking officers to provide full employment gigs for their former comrades in arms.

Scratch beneath the surface and I think you will discover an entire cadre of Don Quixotes who are now too old, too fat, and perhaps even too inebriated to fight much anymore. Worst still, they are probably giving new meaning to the military axiom that "generals are always preparing to fight the last war."

If a 55 year old general has not yet mastered the intricacies of combat leadership, he should be fired immediately. There is no need to hire a dinosaur to hold a deficient leader's hand through a crisis.

And so it goes...

Posted by: pgould1 | July 13, 2010 11:20 AM

Why do we need to pay anyone? People who have risen to the top in their career get paid more? Why would you pay people who have proven their ability more?

A large part of rising in the military is mentoring people. Why would you hire people who had proven they were good at it?

Some people are more talented than others? Why hire them and pay them when you could just fill a quota? Or just not care?

If people come back without limbs why should we care? Isn't it better to take care of them for the rest of their life than to hire some old mentor guy who is good at teaching people to avoid getting their limbs shot off? Or to commanders to avoid it for their men? Or actually achieve something when it can't be helped? Why not just lose? Why not just decay as a civilization?

Posted by: OldAtlantic | July 13, 2010 10:38 AM

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