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Mentoring: Moving from Programs to Culture

By Lt. Col. Charles McElvaine 2nd Operations Support Squadron

Squadron book clubs. Friday lunch groups. Monthly professional development seminars. These are just of few of the mentoring initiatives I have experienced in my career. Each was envisioned and designed by an organizational leader as a mentoring forum; and each was plagued by mediocre results despite the noble goal of developing Airmen through mentoring.

Don't get me wrong, mentoring is a worthy enterprise. Nearly all successful people can point to a positive personal or professional relationship that helped shaped their character. History indicates that military leaders are particularly receptive to formative influence from their mentors.

Consider the early careers of two American military icons--General Eisenhower and Gen. LeMay. In the case of Eisenhower, Gen. Fox Conner molded a young Maj. Eisenhower, educated him on classic military strategy, and shepherded his career through multiple assignments. Similarly, then 1st Lt. Curtis LeMay spent several years under the tutelage of Gen. Robert Olds immediately before and during LeMay's meteoric rise through the ranks of the Army Air Forces leadership during World War II. These two anecdotal examples illustrate well the type of beneficial mentor-mentee relationships that often shape the careers of military professionals.

I suspect that any Airman with appreciable time in our Air Force can identify a mentoring relationship they share with a competent peer or superior. However, I am less convinced that such positive relationships are the result of a formal initiative or were created in an artificial forum. In other words, a quick read of Air Force Instruction 36-401, "Employee Training and Development" and a one-hour block on the schedule is unlikely to result in a new crop of perfectly-matched mentors and mentees.

A successful mentoring relationship requires time to mature before it becomes particularly productive. It takes time for trust to develop between the mentee and mentor. Additionally, an element of chance is inherent to the mentor-mentee dynamic. Circumstance, subject matter and personalities must align in a manner that resonates with the mentee for a meaningful relationship to develop. That's why the approach of simply assigning a mentor to an individual and "working on it" for an hour per month often fails--the mentor doesn't get to arbitrarily decide when the mentoring process is going to work.

I have been very fortunate in my career to have trusted mentors. Those relationships, developed over time, have shaped me primarily when my personal situation predisposed me to "hear" the mentor's message. In most cases that message had been there for a while, but it took time for the circumstances, subject matter and personalities involved to synch up so that I could hear it.

While I am quick to throw stones at book clubs, luncheons and seminars, they are not without merit. However, they are only the first step in the mentoring process, not an end to themselves. To be successful, an organization's mentoring initiative must evolve from a program focused on periodic events to an omnipresent culture that permeates every work center. Fostering such an environment is the best chance the individual "mentors" have to being in transmit mode when the prospective "mentees" are finally ready to receive the message.

I encourage all Airmen, regardless of rank, to make mentoring part of their daily lives. Then take the next step and spread that culture throughout your unit. Be the role model. Take the initiative to train the new Airman in your shop. Share the knowledge you have accumulated with your peers so that others can step up and fill your shoes when you move on. You never know when the words your say, instruction you give, example you set, or gesture you make will serve as a catalyst for the growth of another Airman. We will be a stronger team because of those efforts. You never know, you just might be mentoring the next Curtis LeMay!