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Not a dirty word

WASHINGTON (AFPS) -- After only a few years of service, I considered "mentoring" a dirty word. It got paid a lot of lip service, but I didn't think most leaders really got it.

Don't get me wrong. I've had some outstanding mentors who have helped me over the years. But there were other "mentors" who were worthless. Some didn't make time to learn about my career opportunities or goals. Others were so far out in left field, I'm not even sure we were in the same ballpark. Does this sound familiar?

As a squadron commander, I witnessed the toll that operations tempo and other factors were taking on our Airmen's ability to mentor. Out of more than 5,400 officers and enlisted who responded to a recent Air Force Manpower Agency survey, less than half received a midterm feedback. Feedback is just one of many ways mentoring can occur, but this statistic points to the larger issue: Many fail to grasp the importance of mentorship.

So, what can be done to fix this? There are probably several answers, but I believe a big one lies in understanding generational differences.

Truly meaningful mentorship involves at least a basic understanding of the generations involved. How many times have you had someone "mentoring" you and thought, "This person just doesn't understand me at all!" Generational differences are more than just some old timer complaining about his co-worker's music or some youngster who is stunned her boss' cell phone can only make phone calls. For the first time in history, our service is made up of four distinct generations. Each has its own values, work ethic and preferred method of communicating. All of these impact mentoring. Here are some broad generalizations of each:

Traditionalists
-- Born 1927-1945
-- Rigid respect for authority; work perceived as duty/obligation
-- Like formal, written communication; motivated when respected

Baby Boomers
-- Born 1946-1964
-- Work defines them; tend to be workaholics
-- Like face-to-face communication; motivated when valued/needed

Generation "X"
-- Born 1965-1979
-- Skeptical and self reliant. Work should be challenging; prefer a structured work environment
-- Likes direct and immediate communication; motivated when not restrained

Generation "Y"
-- Born 1980-2000
-- Multi-taskers who enjoy freedom to do assigned tasks; determined in their work ethic
-- Likes feedback, but prefers social media; motivated when they feel valuable

Not every member of a generation will share all traits, but there is clearly a common theme among each generation. Understanding these basic themes is crucial to successfully mentoring each other.

Most people think mentoring is something only the older generations in leadership positions can do, but that is not true. There are also other opportunities for younger generations to "reverse mentor" the older ones. For example, Generation Y can use their understanding of technology to mentor older generations on how to best utilize it in the workplace.

Mentoring is something that leaders should do, and every Airman is a leader. Whether it is "up" or "down," mentoring opportunities can be found in the many differences between the generations.

It is important to keep in mind that these differences are not barriers, but rather assets. While each generation offers its own challenges, each also brings great value to the workplace. The knowledge and skills of each generation are unique and equally beneficial to the mission. When grounded in this perspective, mentoring can bridge the gap between different generations.

When doing so, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
-- Generational issues should be incorporated into professional development programs. By acknowledging these issues, we can work through them and use them to our benefit.
-- Successful mentoring consists of listening and learning rather than lecturing and lamenting. Only when we truly listen to one another and try to learn will we be able to fully understand each other.
-- The best leaders identify each generation's values and leverage their strengths. Our thought processes, work assignments and even daily interactions should all be done intentionally with these generational values in mind.

In today's increasingly age-diverse workforce, differences between generations are more profound than ever. However, if you understand each generation's values, work ethic and preferred method of communicating, you can help to bridge gaps and dramatically improve the positive impact mentorship can have in the Air Force. Hopefully, this will lead other people to the same awareness that I now have: Mentoring is just misunderstood, not a dirty word.