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Developing Airmen-mentoring is key

by Lt. Col. Joseph P Burger
6th Medical Support Squadron commander

What does the word "mentoring" mean to you? If asked that question in an open forum, I would get many responses. Some define it as a formal like our performance feedback system. For others, it means informal support, advice, guidance or friendship.

Whatever your definition, mentorship is certainly beneficial to any organization, and is a very valuable and effective tool for developing our Airmen.

I had the privilege during our September Wingman Day to facilitate a discussion on mentoring for a group of young officers and a group of mid-level, non-commissioned officers. The results were interesting and varied to say the least, so I thought it would be beneficial to share my thoughts on the subject and provide some ideas for consideration.

In writing this article, I spent some time researching the definition of mentoring, and let me tell you, there are many. What it boils down to is taking an active role in helping others succeed.

Mentoring occurs at all levels and doesn't have to be between a supervisor and subordinate. In fact, some of the best mentoring I've received during my career has been from officers (and enlisted) who were outside of my direct chain of command. Basically, when you are imparting your wisdom and experience to someone who needs it, that is mentoring.

Another way you may have heard mentoring described is "training our replacements." In John C. Maxwell's book, "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership," he talks about the "Law of Reproduction."

Based on his research, he states that four out of five leaders you will ever meet will have emerged as leaders because of the impact made on them by established leaders who mentored them. As an example, he found that over half of the head NFL coaches (in 1998) could be traced to two former pro football leaders-Bill Walsh and Tom Landry. I'm certain some of you can relate to his findings and think of individuals who have helped you get to where you are today.

The message here is that it takes a leader to raise a leader. Think back in your own experience to those who have helped you succeed, whether it is a supervisor, coach, parent, teacher or whoever… that was mentoring.

A subject, seemingly so simple as mentoring, many times is not executed as well as it should be. So the question is: Why don't all leaders develop and mentor others? There are many reasons, but I'll briefly discuss three of them I feel are critical.

First, some leaders just don't recognize the value of mentorship nor understand how to do it. My suggestion to this group of individuals is to first begin to hone your own leadership and interpersonal skills. If you are a poor leader, chances are no one will want to be mentored by you anyway! Additionally, an essential requirement of mentoring is the mentor must have interpersonal skills and show a genuine interest in the person being mentored.

So how do you hone these critical skills? I have yet to see a formal course on mentoring. There are, however, numerous books and web sites out there. You just need to search them out and learn. For those of you just starting out in a supervisory role, the "One Minute Manager" series are classics, and John C. Maxwell's books are also very good reading with easy to follow advice. For interpersonal skills, the Dale Carnegie classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is a great start. For guidance specifically on mentoring, try http://leadership.au.af.mil/sls-skil.htm.

A second reason mentorship may not occur as often as we like is because we are so focused on our day-to-day mission that we don't have time left for our key staff members. As leaders, you must carve time out of your day to spend face-to-face with your Airmen. As our previous Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. John P. Jumper, used to say: leadership is an analog skill in a digital world.

We've become so dependent on e-mail that we can easily spend the entire day behind the desk typing away. But you can't lead by e-mail. You must make an effort to shut the computer down and get out and about. I know I don't do it enough, and I'm sure others reading this can relate. But it's critical for mentoring (and leadership) to be effective.

Finally, the last issue I'll discuss is insecurity. What I'm talking about here is the inability of a leader to share their knowledge and experience with others from fear of giving up their power or having someone under them "outshine" them. This is absolute nonsense.

I'll refer to another one of John C. Maxwell's laws "The Law of Legacy." This law gets to the heart of training your replacement. The bottom line of this law is you will be judged not on your personal achievements or even by what your team did during your tenure, rather you will be judged by how well your team did after you are gone.

I've known people during my career who were proud of the fact that when they were out of the office, nothing got done. In their mind, they were indispensable…a one person shop. Well, to that group of folks, I say get over it. The true test of leadership in my mind is how well the organization or team performs while you are away. That is mentoring… developing leaders within your organization who are trained and ready to take your place.

One thing everyone agreed upon during the session I facilitated during Wingman Day is how incredibly busy we are accomplishing the mission. You've heard it before we are the best Air and Space Force in the world. With that title comes big responsibilities. Our nation and the world need us.

As a result, I don't foresee the operations tempo decreasing any time soon. But we can't lose sight of the fact that we are the best because of our superb Airmen. As Gen. T. Michael Moseley stated in his September Memo to Airman, "…We must preserve that which makes us the most feared Air Force in the world-our people. Our culture of excellence must continue to develop Airmen... Airmen who are the most adaptable, most skilled, most professional, and most lethal the world has ever known."

Each of us whether a commander, supervisor or wingman has a role towards this end. So, if you are doing your part in mentoring-good on you. If not, get smart on the subject then make a concerted effort to help our more junior Airmen. I believe you will get just as much satisfaction out of it, if not more, than they will.

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