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Mentoring Viewpoints: Tell me, teach me, involve me

Snodgrass SES lecture

Bill Snodgrass, a member of the Senior Executive Service and the Air Force Materiel Command Director of Manpower, Personnel, and Services, demystifies the SES application process for prospective candidates at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base during a seminar June 14, 2018. Snodgrass provided an in-depth look at the Executive Core Qualifications writing process and ways that an individual can begin taking steps in the present to gain the proficiency required of the most senior civilian leaders throughout the U.S. Department of Defense.

Snodgrass Bio photo

John W. "Bill" Snodgrass, Senior Executive Service

“Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I may remember.  Involve me and I learn.” -- Benjamin Franklin

The value of mentorship is widely recognized by both the private and public sectors today, but it's important to note this is not a new idea.  The term "mentor" actually comes from ancient Greece and Homer's Odyssey, where Odysseus entrusted his son's education to a man named Mentor (so the concept isn't some new fad recently created by an internet blogger). It's an art with ancient origins and a tradition that has carried on through modern day.

Now that you're able to correctly answer any question on the origins of mentorship that may pop-up on the game show, Jeopardy, I would like to share some thoughts on mentorship, with most "borrowed" from the great mentors who took a chance on me during the 35 years that I've served in the United States Air Force. 

Definitions of mentoring and discussions regarding the associated benefits vary to some degree, but most concentrate on concepts such as: knowledge sharing, coaching, commitment, creating trust, enhancing professional development, building a leadership bench, establishing the right organizational culture, increasing productivity, instilling confidence, improving retention, and promoting diversity and inclusion. Rather than reiterate what several books, articles, research studies and even Ted Talks address on what comprises good mentoring and the benefits it provides (all great stuff and no doubt said far better than I ever could), I'll focus on what mentoring is not. Occasionally, knowing what something is not helps one gain a keener appreciation for what it is.  With that in mind, I share the following:

1.)  Mentoring isn't easy.  It's not a passive undertaking. It's not about "checking off the mentoring block" and never reengaging. It's hard work that takes time, effort and commitment--from all parties.  It requires persistent goal-setting, frequent "checking in" and a willingness for the mentor and mentee to both make the effort to stay connected.

2.)  Mentoring isn't a one-time effort.   It's not limited to solely providing advice on how to tackle the big project that's due next month; that's better defined as short-term coaching or perhaps training.  Mentoring goes further. It's about establishing a long term, personal investment that benefits the participants and organization as a whole, for an extended period of time.  It's not episodic.  It considers professional development and career opportunities for the mentee.

3.)  Mentoring isn't one-way communication.  It's a push-and-pull relationship with the mentor and mentee sharing thoughts and discussing challenges facing the organization, as well as the mentee's professional development.  The mentor must make time to share their knowledge and experience, while, at the same time, they must be receptive to new ideas from the mentee.  The mentor must also be candid when it comes to addressing mentee needs and expectations.  At times, this might mean telling them that they are not quite ready for that particular developmental opportunity or promotion.   It might also necessitate telling them that they need to stretch professionally and compete for a job that's a bit outside of their comfort zone.  The mentee must also be an active participant and shouldn't expect to be spoon-fed.  They must recognize professional development is a shared responsibility.   Mentors explain and listen, while the mentees question and further investigate, while setting personal goals.  

4.)  Mentorship isn't a panacea.  It is not going to dramatically improve your unit's effectiveness overnight or result in supervisors and subordinates singing “kumbaya” at the end of each duty day.  However, it can do amazing things for the mentor, mentee and the entire organization through the dispersal of institutional competencies, leadership skills and professional development to our future leaders. 

I hope you found  a nugget or two of information that is useful as you consider becoming a mentor or being mentored.  In closing, I'll provide the following quote with the goal to generate cause for thought when considering mentorship:  “Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I may remember.  Involve me and I learn.” -- Benjamin Franklin