Mentoring nothing more than flash of the obvious

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Recently I had a lieutenant ask me why her leadership will not mentor her. She stated that her supervisors don't have the time or the desire to mentor her. This made me reflect back on my career and question whether I had ever received mentoring in what we would classify as the true form of mentoring. 

My experience is that mentoring won't be something that comes at you full force. Not everyone is going to come at you with a baseball bat and beat into you everything you should know. While some try this method, it really isn't effective. Mentoring is more like a walk on the beach -- while wading through the seaweed, every once in a while a pearl of wisdom will jump out at you. 

Reflecting back on my career, I've found that mentoring may come from many sources. The most obvious examples are your supervisor, your peers and your commander. Less obvious are articles written by leaders and the Airmen you supervise. To be mentored, I believe you have to always be receptive to being mentored from as many sources as possible, even when you least expect it or realize that it's happening. 

As I was thinking back to examples I could share with this lieutenant, I thought of all the bosses I've had over the years. Let's face it, we all have good ones as well as bad ones. But it's interesting how your frame of reference may change the older and more experienced you get. 

The boss that gave me minimal direction and made me redo my work repeatedly until it was perfect was the boss that taught me to think. I dreaded it back then, but now I find that I get my work done with minimal effort. As a second lieutenant, my staff packages got ripped to shreds, and I got called to the deputy commander's office repeatedly. By gosh, if it was the last thing he would ever do, he was going to teach me to think and write like a colonel! All three hundred times I thought I was in trouble, yet again, I didn't realize that I was being mentored. 

I was able to draw from many different examples to share with the lieutenant, but it made me question which lessons I learned were most important to me. Additionally, am I that person she is referring to that is not passing on the pearls of wisdom that were shared with me over the years? 

Retired Maj. Gen. Perry Smith wrote an article, "Learning to Lead, Part I," that points out "30 Blazing Flashes of the Obvious" that are important to me today, and I try to pass to others every chance I get. While I won't go over all 30 of them, I will share a few that I've used routinely to mentor others which are not the ones that you hear all the time. 

The first flash of the obvious is to know yourself. I try to mentor that it's important to realize how others react to your style so you can change as appropriate. Those who are very intimidating or imposing may get instant respect. For me, I often use humor as a tool to motivate others. If you are new to the Air Force and visually you look like you are 12, some of the tactics used by our great generals may not work for you until you are further into your career and have built up your credibility. 

Every step of the way, you'll need to figure out what works for you at that particular time.
Major Gen. Smith sums this up more concisively, saying, "All leaders should realize they are, in fact, five or more people. 

They are who they are and who they think they are (and these are never quite the same). They are who their bosses think they are, who their peers think they are and who their subordinates think they are. Leaders who work hard to get feedback from many sources are more likely to understand and control their various selves and hence, be better leaders." 

The second flash of the obvious that I like to borrow is don't waste people's time. Wasting people's time can come in many forms. Do you set your meetings to one hour yet allow them to routinely run over? Those attending the meeting may have other important meetings stacked up right behind yours, and they just might be working an issue that is important to you. 

Do you give out work that is considered "busy work?" Major Gen. Smith states, "The best question a leader can ask a subordinate during a counseling session is, 'How am I wasting your time?' Not everyone will tell you, but cherish the ones that do for they will help you grow and prosper as a leader." 

The third flash of the obvious that Maj. Gen. Smith points out is to help your people understand you. As you transition to new assignments, it's important to get your people together and tell them what your top priorities and your pet peeves are. It's important for them to learn very early what really bugs you. 

They'll appreciate your candor. 

I have learned over the years that sometimes you have to review your priorities repeatedly. Turnover in the military can be 25 percent a year in your unit, and you shouldn't expect your priorities to always trickle down to the replacements. This will ensure that you revisit your priorities to evaluate whether they are still in line with the overall mission. 

Finally, my favorite flash of the obvious is avoid the activity trap. For Maj. Gen. Smith, this is confusing being busy with being productive. If you aren't disciplined, you may become a slave to your e-mail, meetings, task fulfillment and, do I dare mention, the dreaded BlackBerry. In today's busy world, you must be aware of how these competing interests pull you away from fulfilling your role as a visionary. 

So, am I that person that is passing on the pearls of wisdom that were shared with me over the years? I like to think yes. I merely made the time to make it a priority. They get passed down one at a time when I see an opportunity to present one. 

They take the form of mandatory Friday morning mentoring sessions with the Airmen who work in the trenches. They are spoken words when talking to a group on how to write EPRs with impact. They are the give-and-take feedback at a weekly commander/Airman breakfast. 

They are the advice you give to a lieutenant when they are trying to make a service-before-self decision. How will you answer this question for yourself?