Now, that is mentoring

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col Tom Angelo
  • 31st Force Support Squadron
About ten years ago, after enlightening me with, no doubt, another gem of wisdom that went over my head, the colonel said to me, "now, that's mentoring!"

Years later, I'm beginning to understand what mentoring really is and that we can easily miss it, even when it's right in front of us. We often seek mentoring from the wrong sources, we don't always recognize its value, and we sometimes discount its merit when it doesn't have immediate application. There are a few common mistakes I've seen and done that perhaps you, or your Airmen can avoid. Here are five of my "lessons learned."

1. Seek mentorship from more than one person and along many dimensions. Perspectives from different mentors can inspire and spark innovation. Mentors from various backgrounds bring different ideas and approaches based on their life experiences and with several mentors you'll expand your personal growth beyond just "the job". Mentors can assist you across many dimensions and help you set and achieve goals in your professional, spiritual, physical, or academic life. No one mentor needs to fill all roles; freeing yourself from this idea allows you to seek short-term mentorship from a variety of sources. "Situational mentoring" is a great way to get just-in-time advice for the short-term challenges we all face.

2. Don't try so hard that you end up with the wrong mentors -- like ones who feel they need to mentor you only because they outrank you, or the boss who you feel has to be your mentor because of their position. Rank or position are not always the best measures of success (blasphemy, I know). Instead, look for those who you feel are most competent for the advice or counsel you need. Although you should keep an open mind to those who offer mentorship, try not to feel obligated to receive guidance from someone when it's just not a good match. A skilled mentor should feel when there's not a good connection, too.

3. The right mentors are not always who you think. For example, peer mentorship can often be the most honest, though toughest to receive at times. In 2007, a fellow squadron commander slyly did this to me, and although at the time I saw it as him just touting his unit's success, he was really mentoring me to improve my game. Similarly, those junior to you can often teach you as much as your peers or seniors, as they can provide feedback for how your leadership is being received. Reverse mentoring can also help senior members learn skill sets from more junior Airmen, such as information technology or different approaches to learning. Don't be bounded by pay structures, either: enlisted Airmen, civilians, and officers can certainly benefit from mentorship regardless of the uniform or attire we wear. It is critical to seek mentorship from within and outside your functional community--or even outside the Department of Defense or government environment.

4. Realize that mentorship can be both continuous and discrete. Mentees often see mentorship only in small doses at regular intervals, such as documented feedback sessions, on the golf course, or in barstool conversations at the Club (which CAN be part of it). Mentorship can be something we're subconsciously feeling or receiving -- something in which we are immersed -- that we don't need to think of, just like we don't think to breathe or blink. Mentorship can happen on a daily, or frequent basis when a supervisor is filling a mentor role as well. I've had several bosses who've asked me to look over their shoulders when typing e-mails to their bosses, who've jokingly, but seriously, called me out on slacking on my professional military education, or who've handed me a set of decisional slides to read through. Those small doses happen pretty quietly from day to day, but speak in loud volumes when considered together; what seems accidental is really deliberate, when you're being mentored by someone who really cares about your development.

5. Realize that understanding can come much later in the process. Airmen may find the whole mentorship process interesting, and they may learn something in their functional area, but the understanding (and possibly the application) can come later -- even years later. When your immediate boss is a senior officer, a chief master sergeant, or a senior civilian leader or executive, just watching them arrive at decisions can be a learning experience. This learning experience can guide your counsel to them in the short term, but more importantly it's a skill you tuck away for later. Experiences later in life re-affirm the value of the previously received mentorship, which will drive you to mentor others with passion and vigor.

I don't think I've broken any new ground here, or advanced the academic literature on the topic of mentorship. However, in asking me to write about this, my former colleagues have once again played a part in mentoring me without even realizing it. Now THAT is mentoring.