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NEWS | June 4, 2012

Mentoring is not just an Air Force buzzword...paying it forward pays the Air Force back

By Master Sgt. Fabrienne Burnett Air Combat Command A1

There is a lot of discussion on enlisted leadership and our noncommissioned officer corps. Why we are where we are, and what we need in order to ensure we develop Airmen to take our place, and lead the future Air Force?

However, my words are not about what was said or why. It is about how to get our future leaders where we want them to be as our successors. Mentoring is a start.

Mentoring is significant part of our Air Force culture, and important to the development of our future leaders, and developing a path for our young Airmen to follow. This is how we lay the foundation to build the best Air Force leaders.

Today's Airmen are very smart and highly technical young corps of people. However, the Air Force is still a new experience to all who enter her ranks. It is significantly different than any job held within the civilian force.

Airmen need leadership guidance throughout their entire military career, on all aspects of being a well-rounded Airman. Sitting down and talking to Airmen about their careers, goals and future early, and taking an active role in their career progression will pay off to the Air Force down the road.

As a young fresh-faced Airman 1st class coming out of the "break 'em down, build 'em up" basic military training course and delusional tech school experience, I knew a lot of technical things already. I could grasp concepts very easily; so I had no problem becoming proficient at my new job. What I didn't know is the other side of being an Airman; those tools we need to become a great future Air Force leader.

Leaders "picking me up by my bootstrap" as they say; teaching me the way, showing me how to get it done, and more importantly, leading from the front by actually doing it, and taking me along to see how it's done, helped me tremendously on my path. This is a component of mentoring our force.

Mentoring is inherent to leadership. All too often, leaders focus on themselves, and tend to forget there is a young, enlisted corps coming up behind them that needs them.

There is nothing wrong with taking care of our own career, but as leaders, our vast array of experience has taught us balance. We learn to balance mission, family and career. Our young Airmen, NCOs and subordinates must be included. We must not forget to guide those Airmen coming up behind us who will continue to lead our Air Force.

Whether it's on-the-job action, professional organization involvement or community involvement, all Airmen need to see you lead. In addition to seeing it, mentoring is showing them. Keeping up with the day-to-day duties can be time consuming, but we have to give Airmen our time as well. Build our young corps from the ground up.

We as leaders must reach out to develop our Airmen regardless of rank and time in service. No time is too early or late to grab Airmen and develop the leader within them. We have to build upon what is already there, and continue to develop our Airmen through active involvement. It's never too late, regardless of rank. Stay actively involved!

Individual influence is a strong leadership quality and mentoring tool. If a young Airmen see you out from behind your desk, being actively involved with the things they are doing, involved professionally and personally within the Air Force community and bringing them along to be directly involved, it will not be forgotten.

This small effort to include them stays with Airmen. When Airmen see a leader truly giving attention from their schedule to interact with them, it sticks with them. They will develop that same trait and pay it forward to the next Airmen.

My supervisor and co-workers prepared me thoroughly on work related tasks through on-the-job training and upgrade training. These were priorities, and my leaders made sure I understood the importance of what I do, and that I was proficient in my job.

I know you're thinking... that is what your supervisor and those Airmen senior to me should be doing. I won't argue that. What I will say is, there is a whole other side to being that all-around Airmen and great future Air Force leader, and we need to ensure our young Airmen are prepared to lead tomorrow.

This is where we as senior enlisted leaders come into play. We have to grab an Airman or Airmen by the collar and show them what it takes to become that master sergeant, senior master sergeant or chief that will take the helm of this great Air Force and continue to fly, fight and win.

Mentoring is outlined in Air Force Instruction 36-3401. However, this is a basic foundation, and has core principles all leaders should build on. Counseling Airmen on career, goals, and development is key to successful Airmen development. But guess what? Levying experience and direct involvement are quite powerful mentoring tools that go hand-in-hand with counseling to pave the path to a great Air Force leader.

Effective mentoring comes from the hands-on involvement, hands-off and coaching Airmen through to accomplish the feat. Keep in mind that a hand-off is not a push-off.

When I think of hands-on, hands-off and coaching, I think of my dad teaching me to ride a bike. I told my dad I wanted a bike; my first ever. He bought the bike, and we went outside to the street in front of our home.

He rode the bike so I could see how easy riding can be. This made me comfortable, so he put me on the bike, and held the seat while I rode. Then, that magical day came; he let me go and ran beside me coaching me through it. It was an awesome feeling riding the bike, while he was still right there with me guiding me through it.

I knew he was there guiding me, but I was riding the bike on my own. There have been too many times I've seen leaders take over, do it for the Airman and continue to do it. Give the Airman the opportunity to show their abilities, and take the time to be there for guidance and feedback.

A senior master sergeant I worked for taught me about paying it forward. When he led base or community events, he would take me along to see how to get it done. He briefed commanders and chiefs at all command levels, foreign country military leaders, Airman Leadership School and First Term Airman Center classes, and made sure I was there. It was not within my responsibilities, but he saw this opportunity to prepare me as a leader.

The next time around, I challenged myself to conduct his high-level briefs, but he took the time to prepare me, and was on hand in case I needed assistance. I blew it out of the water, of course, but a part of that confidence was due to his active involvement.

This was a true testament of mentoring. He did not point out a single job action I should handle, or a single function that I should lead, or a specific position I should hold that would look good on an evaluation.

I saw my supervisor out front doing our job in the office, leading functions, attending functions, talking to Airmen, and talking to NCOs from many organizations. That opened my eyes to what my job was as an enlisted leader. He paid it forward through action. He was never too busy for me or for Airmen.

I love the old adage, "Give me a fish, and feed me for a day. Teach me to fish and feed me for a lifetime." Mentoring is giving your time and attention to develop our Airmen, and it pays so many dividends to Air Force in the future.

Pay what you have learned forward, and inspire the next generation to pay it back as well, and I guarantee we will continue to be the best Air Force in the world.