• Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Colin O'Neill
  • 36th Communications Squadron
What if I told you there's a tool that can revolutionize the way we do our jobs? Here are a few of the endless possibilities:

· trainees fully duty qualified ahead of schedule
· decreased safety mishaps
· technically and professionally proficient Airmen
· improved mission readiness
· strong unit cohesion identity and ... members who know where they fit within the organization
· world-class support

The tool is mentorship. A mentor is a wise and trusted counselor. A mentor can be anyone with more knowledge or experience in a given area who can help develop our junior personnel. Mentors care about the people they mentor and genuinely want them to succeed. They might point out road blocks that caused them to stumble during their own development or offer thought provoking ideas if the mentee (the person being mentored) has reached an impasse. This often boosts the mentee's confidence, speeds development and increases proficiency.

Despite the myriad benefits mentorship has to offer some leaders and supervisors under-utilize it or worse yet, they don't use it at all. Is there really a problem? I have had the privilege of serving on several NCO Professional Development panels at Andersen AFB. I provide a disclaimer before asking one of my favorite questions, "I'd like to see a show of hands; this won't leave the room so please be brutally honest. How many of you have not received an initial or mid-term documented performance feedback from your supervisor?" Usually one-third of the attendees raise their hands! I found this hard to believe so one day I pulled a bunch of Airmen aside as they were entering the base theater for a commander's call and marshaled them over to the side. They had no idea what was going on until I handed them a little slip of paper containing two boxes, one marked "Yes" and the other with a "No." I promised, "I'm not writing down any names; this is completely anonymous. Have you received a documented performance feedback from your supervisor?" I only had time to grab 13 Airmen, but five of them checked the "No" box.

Chief O'Neill, aren't you confusing performance feedback with the topic of mentorship? Not really. Performance feedbacks belong in the mentorship toolbox. There's an important interrelationship between mentorship and feedback; the two should go hand-in-hand. If supervisors aren't performing mandatory documented feedbacks with their own Airmen, they are missing out on powerful mentorship opportunities.

I have heard the full range of excuses as to why these sessions aren't completed. Some of the frequent reasons include: task saturation, ops tempo, and just not enough hours in the day, etc. ad nauseam. During my 18 months at Andersen AFB I have asked a few supervisors point blank, "Did you conduct a written performance feedback session with your Airmen?" On one occasion I received a "Yes," but not a confident resounding "Yes," so I peeled some layers off of the proverbial onion only to find a festering case of rationalization. Since this supervisor frequently sent emails to his ratee during the reporting period (and we all know emails contain feedback), therefore he performed day-to-day "documented feedbacks." AFI 36-2406, Officer and Enlisted Evaluation Systems, makes a clear distinction between documented performance feedback sessions and informal day-to-day feedback.

As I look back over my almost 30 years in the Air Force, I remember one supervisor in particular, a master sergeant in charge of quality assurance, who made a huge difference in my own development and career. None of us liked him at the time; to date he is still the most difficult supervisor I have ever worked for. He used to frequently conduct what he called, "Mentorship Moments" with everyone in the work center. They weren't nearly as much fun as they sound either ... unless someone else was getting "mentored." If we did something wrong we knew he was going to exclaim in front of everyone else, "it's time for a mentorship moment." He felt that the entire work center was a thriving organism and so the corrections he doled out to one person could benefit everyone else too. He possessed the uncanny ability of tearing us down to our very core yet he'd genuinely build us back up, usually within 60 seconds. His mentorship moments weren't intrinsically negative; if we did something exceptionally well or notable he'd tell us what we did right, how it contributed to the organization and how to take it to the next level. We excelled because, in minimal time, we all knew what his expectations were, what we needed to do and what the overall impact would be to our unit mission. He cultivated a sense of ownership and accountability within us, and I have always been grateful to him for that.

I encourage every leader, every senior noncommissioned officer, and every NCO to make time for "Mentorship Moments." Unlike the moments I described earlier, it's always best to praise in public and censure in private. Highlight the truly incredible accomplishments our personnel make during public mentorship moments. It lets our younger Airmen know that they too are making a huge difference within the organization and encourages others to emulate the desired behavior. It gives them a goal to strive for and cultivates a positive atmosphere that promotes personal growth. One-on-one mentorship, consistent support and intentional skill-building activities can spur your Airmen on to reach their maximum potential.

These moments can be conducted anytime anywhere on-the-fly as needed. When was the last time someone in your work center did something right? Did they benchmark a process? Devote 60 seconds to and explain to everyone what that person did and what the overall impact was for your mission. (Of course don't overdo this either. Make sure your moment is meaningful or it will be meaningless). Did someone miss the mark? Take him or her aside, explain what they did wrong, show them what they could have done better and end on a positive note.

Mentorship is an extremely powerful tool! I remember a story my father told me when I was growing up about an amazed onlooker who asked a farmer how he could plow such straight furrows in his field. The farmer replied, "I fix my gaze on an object in the distance and don't take my eyes off of it." Using mentorship, leaders and supervisors who have already "trodden the path" can fix the sights of our junior Airmen on what is really important. Focusing them on an objective and providing them with timely feedback enables them to make small course corrections. Imagine how productive your Airmen can be when they're not aimlessly floundering while they wait for someone, anyone, to show them what comes next. Instead they will be progressing toward well-established goals as you coach them toward success.

If there was ever a time for mentorship in today's Air Force, it's now! We're faced with diminishing resources and a leaner workforce. Savvy leaders and supervisors know that leveraging this tool increases organizational productivity and performance. The time you invest in mentoring your personnel will pay off many times over! When you set high expectations, challenge your folks with lofty, yet attainable, goals and nurture their growth in a positive environment replete with timely feedback (mentorship moments) you end up with mission qualified-technicians and professionals who can achieve the mission.