Mentoring - Why we need it during all stages of our career

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Today there are many perspectives on what mentoring means and many different methods used to mentor.

Mentoring might be described as the activities conducted by a person (the mentor) to help another person (the mentee) do a job more effectively and progress in his career. The mentor may be someone who has "been there and done that" before, and may use a variety of approaches such as coaching, training, discussion or counseling. There are still many people in today's leadership and supervisory positions who believe mentoring is just a "catchy" phrase.

Mentoring isn't just a catchy phrase, it's an essential ingredient in developing well-rounded, professional and competent future leaders, whether they are an officer, enlisted or civilian personnel. Mentoring prepares our personnel for increased responsibilities by helping each individual reach his maximum potential. Air Force Instruction 36-3401, Air Force Mentoring, states the mentoring relationship between supervisors and subordinates is a professional relationship and "fosters free communication by subordinates with supervisors concerning their careers, performance, duties and missions."

Additionally, Air Force Policy Directive 36-34 states mentoring is a fundamental responsibility of all Air Force supervisors. They must know their people, accept personal responsibility for them and be accountable for their professional development. The immediate supervisor or rater is designated as the primary mentor (coach, guide, role model) for all subordinates. However, subordinates can seek additional counseling and professional development advice from other sources or mentors. First and foremost, supervisors and commanders must make themselves available to subordinates who seek career guidance and counseling.

When members choose a mentor, the mentor is expected to be senior to the mentee with more professional and life experiences. Supervisors should let the member choose the mentor, preferably one who's outside the chain of command because they may offer a broader perspective, a wider range of opportunities and alleviate the appearance of favoritism.

It's important to remember that all mentoring relationships are unique and have varying degrees of success. Mentoring relationships take time, effort and skill to develop. The more the mentor and mentee are willing to put into their mentoring relationship, the more each of them is likely to get out of it. If you make an appointment for mentoring, be prepared. Bring your list of goals and objectives and let them know how important this is to you.

In today's mentoring relationships, mentees usually have more than one mentor and mentors have more than one mentee. Mentees should set goals and identify the deficiencies they want to correct. One mentor may not have all the attributes the mentee needs in which case multiple mentors may be warranted.

Remember, mentors aren't perfect and mentees can learn from their mentor's mistakes. Mentees should avoid mentors that just give the answers. Mentees should take time to find someone that will make them discover the answers.

Although there are many benefits to mentoring programs, there are also a few drawbacks. First, many people don't know how to mentor because they were never mentored. Second, some mentors may feel threatened by the individual they are mentoring. Lastly, mentoring requires a great deal of time, which many supervisors or leaders cannot spare. Mentors can often become overwhelmed with these added responsibilities and will decline being a mentor for this very reason. However, education, training and resources, and professional organizations, can help mentors and mentees overcome these obstacles.

It's become more and more evident as time goes on that mentoring is important for continued mission accomplishment, regardless of a member's rank or an officer, enlisted or civilian; plus, it's required by Air Force Instruction. It's the best way to groom our future leaders, but most importantly, it's the right thing to do for our people. Here's what former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman, had to say about mentoring:

"First, I see mentoring as a fundamental responsibility of all ... no matter whether you're at base level, in an operating location or on a headquarters staff, we all bear the responsibility to develop our subordinates and to help groom the next generation of Air Force leaders. Mentoring is a process that is good for all of us. ... mentoring holds great promise for our service. ... It can open up communications within our service, break down barriers and foster cultural change."
After almost 20 years of Air Force service, I can honestly say I wish I had known and taken advantage of the mentoring opportunities that were available to me much earlier in my career, but as they say, it's better late than never. The mentoring I've received throughout the last five years has helped me grow tremendously in my career as a leader and nurse corps officer, and it has guided me to the leadership position I'm in today. Mentoring, as well as being the mentee, has become a continuous process for me both personally and professionally. I understand and accept my role as supervisor, leader, mentor and mentee. To my peers, fellow supervisors and leaders, ask yourselves, "Are you a mentor? Are you a mentee? Are you trying to make a difference?"