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Mentoring: It’s all about you!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tom "Vito" Massa
  • 375th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Commander
Unit Effectiveness Inspection, deployment and temporary duty assignment preparation, mandatory training for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Self-Aid Buddy Care, computer based training modules ... should I continue? Are you too busy doing more with less to worry about being a mentor? Still catching up from the daily 75 emails in your inbox and don't have the time to regularly mentor your Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers or Marines? If your schedule is typical of most supervisors in today's Department of Defense your day (white space on calendar) is filled getting the job done with fewer resources and inexperienced troops.

Despite these challenges, however, mentoring is still possible and a must. As a matter of fact, I contend that you are mentoring your troops right now with your actions and you may not even know it. Here are three mentoring principles that I've learned and executed from observing great leaders in action over my 29 years on active duty.

1. Delegate authority, but not responsibility: Delegation is one of the simplest, yet most underutilized and overlooked, ways to mentor and can be incredibly difficult for some supervisors (i.e. Type A control personalities). For example, instead of complaining about being the last one to leave the office, consider passing on a key duty to a sharp subordinate as part of mentorship. Do not just pass on the unpleasant or menial aspects of your job, but a task that requires your temporary authority and presents a leadership challenge for the individual. As the saying goes, "give them enough rope to work with," but remember you still hold the responsibility.

Tips for consideration:

Don't micromanage! Provide a vector, set a suspense, and offer guidance through empowerment if requested.

Jump at the opportunity to showcase the mentoree in front of the boss--a formal brief, wing stand-up, special project, or any other appropriate venue. This conveys trust, builds confidence, and sets them up on the road to sustained superior performance.
Delegation is also a great way to train your successor and prepare them for future leadership roles (flight chief, deputy, NCOIC, commander, etc.)

2. Praise in public, provide performance feedback in private: Nothing is more frustrating than a supervisor who ignores the hard work going on and instead focuses primarily on putting out short-term fires. Sure, we often need to hoop-jump to answer the "help from above needs this yesterday" suspense, but don't let crisis become the rule rather the exception.

As a mentor, offer several praise filled comments and constructive criticism. As a supervisor, your job is to instill confidence and motivate your subordinates, especially when misfortune occurs or morale begins to wane. High fives or other "attaboys" in front of their peers are great mentoring tools. Also, never, never, whether out of frustration or to teach them a lesson punish one of your troops in front of others. Take them aside privately, tell them something positive first then, tell them what they are doing wrong, and, finally, provide a solution to fix it. If at all possible, end this mentoring moment on a positive note. The person leaving your office should walk out not with their head hanging, but thankful you took the time to make them better.

3. Make sure your folks see how much you enjoy your job ... within reason: Mentoring 101: have fun at work. I contend a leader who is having a blast is mentoring everyone in contact with them. Actions do speak louder than words, and an infectiously positive leader is worth dozens of formal mentoring opportunities. As a prior Aerospace Operational Physiologist, I knew I had the best job in the Air Force and I routinely told my commander why. Show your troops why they should stay in our under-manned, overworked company - incredible job satisfaction awaits! With that being said, however don't go overboard. A workaholic may enjoy their job, but no one enjoys working for a workaholic.

Here are some common mentoring "fouls:"

Calling a subordinate at home during non-duty hours or interrupting crew rest for a non-critical issue. Practice the golden rule and wait until tomorrow to get the answer as the mission will continue.

Cranking out weekend emails to greet your personnel first thing Monday. Tell me again why I, your subordinate, want your job if you are working on your days off just to stay caught up?

Taking local leave and then showing up at work. This communicates a lack of confidence in your subordinates. "Do as I say, not as I do," is weak leadership, plain and simple.

In summary, the principles presented are no substitute for the guidance in for example Air Force Manual 36-2643 "Air Force Mentoring." I hope you realize mentoring is all about you sharing your time, experiences, and knowledge. Delegate more authority, praise your subordinates' often in public, and most importantly make sure your troop's see how much you enjoy your job. Mentorship is an amazing tool that makes these principles easy.