If I don't tell you it's about mentoring will you read it?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Wendy Hansen
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing command chief
Wait, don't stop reading, because I know what you're thinking, "Another article on the mystical mentor, just what I need."

Give me a shot to speak to the concept.

My sister Diane (a.k.a. Chief Hansen) enlisted in the Air Force 3 years before I took my oath. That gave her a unique perspective on my career. She was always able to offer relevant advice when I faced hard choices and gave timely counsel before I knew I needed it. I credit Diane with my survival and success, but I have only started referring to her as my mentor in the last ten years.

Midway through my career having a mentor gained popularity and traction in the Air Force. We made a concerted effort to infuse the ancient concept into our modern environment. Mentorship should not be shrouded in ambiguity or exist as a mythical holy grail. It should be a painless part of our professional lives.

Mentors generally perform 4 roles: advisor, coach, facilitator and advocate. My goal is to highlight what to look for in a mentor, so they can execute those roles for you. I know what makes my sister such an effective and valuable mentor for me. My sister is available, possesses knowledge I don't have, understands me, is brutally honest and we respect each other. Let me explain...

First, an effective mentor must be available to the mentee all the time. Crisis, success, conflict or opportunity...none arrive on a predetermined schedule. If you can't reach your mentor, how can they mentor you?

Second, an effective mentor has knowledge you don't have. I don't mean brilliant strategic vision or wisdom based on years of experience. They just need to have knowledge that you do not. There is a shelf-life to experience. It has to be distant enough for hindsight, but recent enough that your mentor hasn't lost sight of how the knowledge relates to you. The first relevant advice my sister ever imparted was, "Never drink and drive and don't speed on base."

Third, an effective mentor understands you. If there is no relationship there can be no mentoring. A mentor knows your personality, can read your moods, understands your nuances and is unafraid to speak freely. My sister knows when to preach or scream. She also knows when to be blunt or let me find the answer myself.

Fourth, an effective mentor is brutally honest. You should be equally in awe of and annoyed by your mentor. A mentor doesn't always tell you what you want to hear. A good mentor makes you question your motives and defend your beliefs. You should have as many questioning conversations with your mentor as you do "shut up and color" conversations.

Fifth, and most importantly, an effective mentoring relationship is built on respect. If your mentor does not respect you, they will not strive to lead well. If you do not respect your mentor, you will not follow. My sister established her authority to boss me around a long time ago. I respect her as a person, as an Airman and as a leader. When she speaks I listen. I do my best to follow her recommendations and live up to her expectations.

The real takeaway is that mentorship is reliant upon the investment made by both parties. Know what you want, work to cultivate the relationship and put the skills and knowledge you gain to good use. Find someone you can talk to, whose opinion you value and who is not afraid to disagree with you. Mentorship does not guarantee you will become a good leader, but a good mentor can walk you past pitfalls and help you learn lessons without engaging in trial and error.