Mentoring with purpose

By Posted on Apr 25 2015 | By

Cooper Wright graduated from West Point in 1966. The youthful looking 70-year-old sports a trim beard and belies his age by a decade. He still hikes, skis, backpacks and works out at a local gym several times a week.

FullSizeRender (1)He is also preternaturally friendly and talkative. Within moments of meeting him the typical reaction is, “I like this guy”.

During his years as a cadet, mentoring in the conventional sense was not something Wright experienced.

Rather, his instructors—most often military officers—shared combat stories with their students. “That was really the first mentoring I had,” Wright said.

Other support included the ability to pick up the phone and talk with an instructor to get extra classroom assistance.

One such instructor was Norman Schwarzkopf, who later served as Commander-in-Chief, United States Central Command. He led all coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War.

Nonetheless, mentoring in the military in the 1960s was not the counseling of today.  But the Academy was to adopt it by the time Wright returned to teach at West Point less than a decade later.

During his student days it was “perhaps a sign of weakness” to reach out and help somebody. There was a sponsor program in place where an officer invited a cadet to dinner in his home. But it was more duty than mentoring.

“I didn’t feel any close attachment with my sponsor and couldn’t really share what was going on in my head. It was just something he did,” recalls Wright.

Upon gradation, Wright attended Airborne and Ranger schools and was sent to Vietnam as a young Captain in the Army Rangers.

In the theater of war there was little time to sit down and talk with the men under his command. Action simply moved too fast. “There wasn’t time for it. You were just trying to do your job. You didn’t have the luxury to sit back and talk with someone,” said Wright.

He served two nine month tours before returning to teach mathematics at the Academy.

In the classroom
Back at West Point, Wright became involved in a lot of cadet activities. “I had the time and cadets would come over to my house; but not because I was a sponsor. They came because knew they could talk to me,” said Wright.

He had the gift of being able to communicate. “But mostly I listened. The best way to be a mentor is listening. They shared what was going on in their lives and what their problems were. The worst thing is to offer a solution. It was up to them to find a solution,” Wright underscored.

His mentoring technique included bouncing ideas off the soon-to-be warriors. He posed questions such as “Have your thought about this? Or have you thought about that?”

Results from his Academy mentoring did not always bear immediate or obvious fruit.

To point, years later Wright was in New Orleans attending a military conference. It was during Mardi Gras and one evening while strolling the French Quarter a young officer approached him and said, “Major Wright you were my best math instructor.” Wright had no clue.

A similar incidence occurred at a West Point conference. While enjoying a drink during cocktail hour, another young officer came up to him and said, “Aren’t you Major Wright who taught math?

Wright confirmed that he was. “Well, you’re not buying that drink. You took care of me and I’m buying.” Wright hadn’t realized he had assisted the young man at a pivotal time in his career.

Wright recalls another cadet who would come over to his house to simply talk. The young man knew there wasn’t going to be any judgments made. He knew someone was there to simply listen and offer advice. If advice was asked for.

Second career
Wright retired as a lieutenant colonel and pursued a second career in business. During this period he became in involved in Venturing, a youth development program of the Boy Scouts of America. It’s designed for young men and women between the ages of 14 and 20.

Today, he is amazed that the young scouts he worked with years ago not only stay in touch but invite him to the baptisms of their kids and other events.

One story involves an older scout. ”I told all the kids, ‘Look, I don’t want you out drinking. You are under age. But if some night you are in a situation where you know you can’t drive, call me. I will come and pick you up and take you home. And I won’t ask any questions.’

“Well, one kid did exactly that. Today, he is a captain in the Marine Corps and the father of three children,” Wright said.

Wright reinforces that mentoring is the business of really being a trusted friend; being someone the person can talk to.

“It’s not easy for a young person to develop a trusting relationship with an adult because they are exposing themselves. They’re opening themselves up. And they are telling you something they may or may not be able to tell their parents,” Wright said.

Getting involved
Mentoring is not a one-way line of communication. Wright believes it is a great opportunity for both the mentor and mentee. “So many kids out there are looking for an opportunity to communicate with adults.” It is rewarding for both parties.

Wright’s wife Linda was also a mentor with a Rappahannock County group called Starfish. One girl she worked with was eight-years-old. Today, the woman is 20 and still stays in contact with her.

Wright is committed to mentoring whenever an opportunity presents itself. He advises those interested in pursuing such work to look for opportunities in the right places.

“Anyone who has an inclination to do this should find an organization like the scouts, Starfish, or church groups because that’s where the kids are.” He also advises that established youth groups will require background checks for adults working with youth.

Wright is now fully retired and pursues a host of activities, including serving as board chairman of the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra. The PSO has launched a Music Mentors residency program that Wright supports.

West PointHe also maintains closes ties with West Point, especially its Professional Military Ethics program. The program involves former graduates meeting quarterly with cadets and discussing ethical problems.

“The cadets are given an ethical problem with no right or wrong answer. They hash it out and at the end of the discussion the old grads are asked ‘Did something like this happen in your career? And if so, what did you do? And what was the impact of your decision? Was it good or bad?’

“I am really pleased to see that West Point has developed training programs where the focus in on leadership,” Wright said. Mentoring is part of the turnaround from his days as a cadet.

When asked what advice he’d share with someone who wanted to pursue mentoring, his response is immediate. “Be a mentor. Be a friend. It’s wonderful for the mentee. And it’s wonderful for you. You become part of that person’s life. A trusted part of that person’s life.”

Sound advice coming from an officer and a gentleman.

Published in the Spring 2015 edition of The Business Journal.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES