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NEWS | Nov. 18, 2014

Mentorship and development

By Chief Master Sgt. Robert Valenca 628th Maintenance Support Group chief

We constantly use these words and say we are growing our Airmen, but what are we really doing in the mentorship and development process?

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn." 

I think understanding and applying this thought to the principles of mentorship at all levels will help us increase our Airmen's effectiveness and create a stronger Air Force. 

Most of us have been through some form of leadership school during our military careers. Although, at times the methods taught or the individual credited with establishing the program may be different, the cores of each leadership program tend to still be the same. In each course you will inevitably be taught about directive leadership, when you as the supervisor or mentor set the specific path the individual needs to follow with little to no input from them. 

I remember a master sergeant I once worked for had a sign over his door that summed things up pretty clearly: "It's my way or the highway, and oh, by the way, I own the highway." 

Although, this type of approach may have merit in some instances, it is not an effective mentorship tool for every situation. If an Airman's every move is dictated, how are Airmen ever going to grow?

When they leave you and move to their next assignment will they be able to continue to excel?  To save time in today's day and age of accomplishing more with less, we can easily fall into a directive method because it is easier and faster. As leaders we need to be cognizant of this kind of trap.

Instead of giving Airmen everything they ask for and not making them take any ownership of the process or their career path, we need to work to include them in the decisions; in fact guiding them to make the decisions for themselves.

A great place to start is how you implement feedbacks in the new evaluation system. In the feedback, you must be honest with your Airmen. You have to mark them as you truly see their performance. However, you need to provide them with a path for improvement as well. This is where you become a team and allow your Airmen to take some ownership in the resolution. 

Let's look at an example of an Airman having difficulty with upgrade training. 
The simple directive way is to require the Airman to spend more time during duty hours studying and to require more practice tests. It's the quick and easy fix, but what did the Airman learn? 

That same Airmen needs to continue on with their career and will face many more Air Force tests in the future. Will someone be there to set time limits for their studying then?  Instead, block some time where you know you will not be distracted and have a conversation to work with your Airman in determining how they should use their for studying and you may be surprised as a joint time management resolution is reached. 
By working through the process, Airmen will learn and develop, allowing them to not only potentially succeed in future testing, but also providing the added benefit of preparing them to mentor other Airmen as they grow into leadership rolls. 

This is only one small example, but if you apply this method in your mentoring and development practices, you will go a long way to ensuring the Airmen you serve will be involved and learn as they grow with you and not just hear it and forget.

Understanding how to be good mentors will be vital as we move forward with the major changes in force structure, promotion and evaluation our Air Force faces in the very near future. No one said it will be easy, but I believe nothing worthwhile ever is.