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Mentoring: Take advantage of some good advice

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Throughout my career, I've seen many mentoring programs come and go. The Air Force puts an emphasis on mentoring, but quite often, people are unsure of what exactly a mentor is and what to expect from a mentor/mentee relationship.

Webster's Dictionary defines a mentor as a wise, loyal advisor; a teacher or coach. The Air Force has had formal instructions and guidance on mentoring since 1996. The directive 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" (U.S. Department of the Air Force, 2000a, p.1). 

Additionally, Air Force Instruction 36-3401 defines a mentor as "a trusted counselor or guide." According to the AFI, mentoring is a relationship in which a person with greater experience and wisdom guides another person to develop both personally and professionally. What none of these definitions and instructions do is tell us how to actually establish these mentoring relationships. 

I have been both mentor and mentee and have participated in what I call formal and informal mentoring relationships. When I refer to formal mentoring relationships, I mean those that are set through some sort of formalized system. Usually, you make an input to a computer program and then someone matches you up with a mentor based on pre-defined criteria. 

I consider informal mentoring to be when a person seeks out someone they know through their work environment, or someone they admire or have something in common with professionally and personally to seek their guidance. Informal mentoring also includes the reverse: when a person recognizes someone with potential and would like to help guide that person into being a better AF professional and leader. In my experience, the formally established mentoring relationships have not been nearly as successful as the informal.

In formal mentoring programs, I have seen more of a tendency to focus on career progression. The mentee may want to know what to do to get promoted or how the mentor made it to their position. Although this is useful information, the mentor can usually cover it in one or two meetings. 

The AF already does a good job of defining criteria for promotions and moving to the next level for its military and civilian members, therefore there is not a lot of information to expand on. The valuable benefit I've gotten from my mentors and what I think I've best been able to do for my mentees comes from the informal mentoring process. This process has helped me to grow both personally and professionally throughout my career. I use this process when I run into difficult situations and want a person who I think has experienced the same type of situation to help give me an objective perspective. I use it when I am faced with tough career decisions. I use it when I want advice on managing priorities between work and home. I use it to understand how my mentors manage so many tasks at the same time. In other words, I have used my mentors to help with everyday situations. Their advice and guidance has helped me survive and grow as an Air Force professional, and frankly as a wife, mother and daughter, too. What I've learned is that we all share the same experiences over time, and those who have already been down a path can give us invaluable guidance as we set our own paths. I always try to make myself available to help others, just like I have been helped over the years. 

Now, you may ask, "How do I find these mentors and will they have time to spend with me?" First, try to identify leaders both in and out of your chain of command that have a leadership style with which are comfortable or people you feel you have something in common with. It helps to identify at least one or two mentors in your career field. Next, just give them a call and get some time on their calendar. It may seem strange, but mentoring is part of a senior leader's job, so it's quite common to see "Career Counseling" or "Mentoring" on their calendars. Don't be shy. If most are like me, they view it as the most rewarding part of their job. The bottom line is: take advantage of this great opportunity to grow as an Air Force professional...find a mentor and give him or her a call!

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