Investing in our Air Force future

  • Published
  • By Col. Tyrone Woodyard
  • 42nd Air Base WIng vice commander
Can I interest you in an investment that is guaranteed to generate a positive return?  It's a low risk high reward investment proven to produce tangible long term rewards and personal satisfaction.  Over the last 20 years I've been an aggressive participant.  The return on my investments has been personally satisfying and professionally rewarding.     

What is this golden investment opportunity?  It's called mentoring.  Yes...mentoring. Mentoring is an investment that pays immeasurable dividends.  It benefits our families, communities, Air Force and nation.  It's a gift that keeps on giving. 

In its simplest form, mentoring is sharing one's personal and professional knowledge, life's experiences and expertise with someone younger or less experienced.  I believe mentoring is a crucial part of our Air Force culture.  It encourages passing knowledge and wisdom from one generation of Airmen to the next.  It can be done formally or informally and can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.  It's an investment in the young men and women who will eventually assume positions of responsibility, authority and leadership in our communities, schools, government, military and civilian businesses. 

Mentoring is not a passive act.  It requires commitment, dedication and an investment of time, an irreplaceable commodity.  Experienced Airmen can mentor by seeking out younger Airmen (enlisted, officer and civilians) and taking time to share advice, find out what their goals are, offer encouragement or challenge them with a task or assignment that pushes them beyond their comfort zone.

Mentoring takes place in many ways.  It can be a casual conversation, a formal feedback session, a scheduled office call, an unscheduled hallway meeting, or a briefing heard at a conference.  It can happen at any time or place and doesn't take much time.  The key to mentoring is two-way active listening by the mentor and mentee. 

The mentor provides a perspective based on their experiences, which gives the mentee a different viewpoint or option before making a decision or faced with a challenge.  Many times information shared is not used at the moment, but stored and recalled at a later time. 

We've all benefitted from a wise and sage elder who noticed the talent and untapped potential within us before we realized it for ourselves.  Every successful senior officer or Noncommissioned officer can easily name mentors who have shaped and influenced their careers.  In many cases the mentee has reached an equal or higher rank or position than their mentor.  I've found the mentor is rarely surprised by the accomplishments of their mentee.  Mentors view their mentee's success as a return on their investment and experience a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction from the small role they played in their success.  Mentors help others develop their talent and potential. 

My first Air Force mentor was a colonel, near the end of a distinguished career.  I was a second lieutenant who knew very little.  But, I was willing to listen and learn.  The colonel was willing to invest in a "start up" lieutenant.  He made a commitment to mentor me.  There were days when I felt he spent too much time with me, like the time he sent me "TDY" to his office to learn the proper way to staple briefing papers.  (OK Lieutenant...staple the papers together on the top left hand corner, at an angle so they can be easily flipped during my briefing).  Or the times he made me dry run the route we'd use to escort a DV visiting the base and dry run outdoor ceremonies the day prior at the same schedule time.  (I was grateful when I found out the parade ground sprinkler system would've gone off in the middle of the base promotion ceremony.)  The mentoring I received from him was priceless and I still apply many of his words of wisdom.           

Throughout my career I've been mentored by officers, enlisted and civilians.  Some of the best mentoring I've received, and continue to get today, has been outside the office.  I've been mentored on the flightline, in the gym, during a drive to the airport, commuting home on a train, at the end of a tough week outside my boss's boss office, in the parking lot, happy hour at the club, at a ceremony waiting for the official party to arrive, in an auditorium audio booth, unit holiday parties and walking to and from meetings.  I've learned to never waste an opportunity to be mentored.   

Our Air Force is stretched pretty thin now.  The pace of operations, limited resources, not enough people, deployments, training requirements, TDYs and tying to balance work and family time has place an unyielding demand on our limited time.  I got it.  But I'm a little concerned our culture of mentoring Airmen is falling out of favor. 

I am a strong believer that those in supervisory and leadership positions should find time to mentor their Airmen and civilians.  I've made mentoring a priority.  It's part of my weekly routine.  As leaders, we must make the investment to develop, challenge, encourage and influence the next generation of citizens and leaders.  As I interact with the next generation of leaders, I've found a benefit of weekly mentoring is I continue to learn and grow as a leader and person.   

Mentoring truly is a gift that keeps on giving.  It's a solid short term commitment for a pretty sure long term return on a leadership investment.  More important, it's key to ensuring the next generation of Air Force leaders are armed with the wisdom, knowledge and life's experiences of today's leaders.  Every Airman needs and deserves to be mentored and prepared for future leadership opportunities and challenges.

Are you investing in our Air Force...are you mentoring the next generation of Airmen warrior leaders?  If not, it's not too late.  Someone invested in your future.  It's time to pay back the return on their investment.  Go find a promising young Airman and shape the future.  Remember, mentoring is the gift that keeps on giving.