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Mentoring: A few thoughts from an old junior officer

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Given my limited Air Force experience, when mentoring is discussed it elicits either fond tales of personal guidance or a resigned sigh from painful memories of day- or week-long exercises in yawn-control and eyelid lifting.

This exposes the dichotomy of effective and ineffective mentorship. What should be a response to the needs of both parties - information and guidance for the mentee, and leadership experience for the mentor - can become useless when bad pairings, uninterested partners and cynicism take hold. But not to fear!

Worthwhile, productive mentoring takes place in the Air Force every day. I have seen and been a party to solid mentorship both in the Air Force and in the private sector. When a motivated Airman recognizes another motivated Airman with relevant experience, amazing things can happen. Career paths can be plotted, good decisions trump uninformed ones and job satisfaction ensues. Even unmotivated Airmen, when engaged by the right mentors, can experience a change of attitude or at least realize why they feel the way they do. My personal experience shows this may lead to separation or a career-change, but ultimately helps everyone involved move forward and reduces malaise in the unit.

In every case, motivation and chemistry are key components in effective mentoring. When you remove motivation, you reduce investment and it becomes a 'check-box' without real value. Even a motivated mentor/mentee pair, without positive chemistry, will quickly become unproductive in their interactions and possibly become counterproductive.

The Air Force has made it a point that we will mentor, with the understanding that something as personal and trust-based as mentorship must be entered into freely by both parties; a good match will find their own way of interacting. For some it will be discussions at the gym or regular lunches; for others it will be a phone call when something comes up or a drink at the squadron bar after work; still others will be more comfortable using electronic venues like the mentoring forum on My Development Plan or email. Ultimately, each mentoring pair will determine how, when and where they best interface. A good mentoring pair can respectfully speak freely, without fear of reprisal about whatever topic is important to them both. Keep this in mind as you select potential mentors/mentees.

Perhaps the hardest thing for a young Airman to do is approach a potential mentor. Traditionally, the Air Force has not facilitated this process, on a large scale, well. The briefing room with a slideshow or consultant telling us what quadrant of the personality chart we sit in doesn't really cut it. The 'open-door policy' where the mentee enters the potential mentor's work area works great for more outgoing mentees but can be difficult for many junior individuals. Mentees want to find mentors before or after a commander's call, at a unit lunch, at the bar or anyplace where a conversation can be started in a neutral setting without feeling that work is being interrupted.

With these thoughts in mind, the Air Force is designing a mentoring program where mentees have options in establishing mentoring relationships. Mentees have the option to invite past and present coworkers, supervisors, subordinates and even retirees from all of the Air Force corps (active, civilian, Guard and Reserve). Mentees may, and are encouraged to, have multiple mentors.

By helping mentees and mentors understand the numerous mentoring relationship types -- flash mentoring, group mentoring, peer mentoring, reverse mentoring, situational mentoring and virtual mentoring¬ -- and how those types can be used to facilitate the professional development of Airmen, the Air Force hopes to increase the success of Airmen and the job satisfaction of the force, not to mention increasing mission success. If you're like me, most of those terms are foreign, but we'll have a mentoring manual around early spring to enlighten us all.

A good friend of mine provided an interesting analogy for mentoring: Mentoring is a lot like dating. It takes two willing participants with chemistry, or it gets awkward fast. So, the Air Force is providing us opportunity - take advantage of it. It's really up to us mentees to get the ball rolling.

Leaders should make time to be available out of the office. Followers can be far more effective if we get to spend quality time with our leaders.