Commentary: Mentoring makes difference

By Lt. Col. Paul Valenzuela: Force Development Policy and Integration

WASHINGTON — I have always enjoyed reading about the comments and experiences of our airmen in the field. Recently, a Hurlburt Field “Tip of the Spear” spotlight caught my attention. It highlighted Staff Sgt. Erin McLoughlin, a 4th Special Operations Squadron AC-130U loadmaster instructor.

As a member of the Air Force Development Team at the Pentagon, I think about mentoring every day. This airman’s story struck a chord with me because of her enthusiasm for the mission and the advice she received during her career … “Lead those who need your guidance, follow those you can learn from and make happen what is missing between the two.” If all airmen took to heart the advice McLoughlin received, it could have a big impact not only in their lives but their career as well.

One of our team’s goals is for everyone to drive and improve career-long airmen development. Most importantly, we must ensure the tradition of mentoring future leaders and prepare our airmen to meet the ever changing and dynamic mission of the Air Force of today and tomorrow. Some may know this as talent management, but in the Air Force we know it as deliberate force development.

The Force Development Continuum of Learning ensures airmen possess the appropriate leadership and functional competencies at all levels of their careers. This approach allows the Air Force to continue transforming while meeting new challenges. Mentors are an essential ingredient to ensure airmen excel. This involves education, training and experiential opportunities seasoned with ongoing mentoring.

Throughout my career, airmen have used the term mentoring to cover a spectrum of actions. This includes information for personal growth and career development through performance feedbacks, life lessons and tips to improve relationships and communication. One of the most important lessons is how to be a better follower and leader as well as simple ways to improve the system.

Mentoring opportunities present themselves every day, and recognizing the different kinds of mentoring is a key step in taking advantage of these opportunities. These mentoring opportunities are important life and career lessons worth getting right whether it is with a younger airman or just with a good friend.

Air Force mentoring is an active engagement process vital to support career and personal development and includes four distinct roles: advisers, coach, facilitator, and advocate. As an adviser, the mentor initiates two-way communication with feedback and helps the mentee formulate career goals. A coach helps to identify developmental needs and imparts competencies. The facilitator assists in finding resources for problem solving and career progression. As an advocate, the mentor provides opportunities for more challenging projects, thereby, allowing others to observe positive capabilities of the mentee.

To be a successful mentor and help airmen achieve their goals mentors should serve in all four roles. I believe that most of us in the Air Force are 24/7 mentors performing these roles without even noticing, and that’s OK. This indicates our traditions are healthy and alive. However, we may be missing some critical opportunities to develop leaders. Ask yourself, are you choosing who you mentor? Who is your mentor? Are you executing the four roles as part of the mentoring process?

The Air Force presents many key events for engaged mentoring and one is through the development team process. A career field development team meets, at minimum, twice a year and assesses the education, training and experiences needed to meet mission requirements and provides feedback to officers, civilians, senior raters and commanders. A development team survey that was sent to officers is currently underway, and preliminary results show feedback as one of the most valued parts of the process. A recent enlisted development team pilot found that senior NCOs overwhelmingly welcomed and applauded the feedback.

I’m not surprised, I think most airmen are competitive and goal oriented. They share a dedication to reaching a goal or objective in the most efficient means possible. A successful part of this formula is providing feedback and mentoring. I encourage you to actively participate in the development team process. It creates a fantastic mentoring opportunity.