Mentoring: Groom where you’re planted


One morning, roughly four years ago, my phone rang at work. On the other end of the line was a scoutmaster with a request.

His Boy Scouts were at a summer camp and one of their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math activities, also known as STEM, required the scouts to analyze an earthen dam problem.

Would I serve as a subject matter expert and answer their questions?  I was instantly a little nervous. What kind of questions would they ask I wondered, was I the right person for the job?

After asking a few questions of my own, I agreed and asked one final question before I hung up the phone, “Just curious, but how did you get my name and number?” The Scoutmaster replied, “Do you know Senior Airman W?”  Though I had more than 350 Airmen in my flight, I knew him well; he was one of my top performers, an avid volunteer in squadron activities, and also an Eagle Scout and volunteer with the Boy Scouts.

“He recommended you, said you’d be perfect for the job,” he said. I hung up the phone humbled; I had just received a reference from an Airman four levels of supervision deep.

The Air Force defines a mentor in Air Force Manual 36-2643, Air Force Mentoring Program, as a “wise, trusted, and experienced individual who shares knowledge, experience, and advice with a less experienced person.”  The AFMAN provides guidelines and expectations for mentor and mentee, a mentoring checklist, mentoring plan, and more. It also includes information on the Air Force’s latest mentoring tool, MyVector. It’s an online resource to encourage mentorship at all levels, but both are very focused on mentoring as it relates to career progression, which is only a fraction of the mentoring equation.

The Air Force hires almost exclusively from within its ranks, even within the civilian work force; it is rare to receive external hiring authority. The Air Force doesn’t lure employees away from corporations to fill gaps or solve difficult problems, it deliberately grooms its Airmen for increased levels of responsibility. That development is vital to the future success of the Air Force and isn’t something only commanders do, it must happen at every level. 


Mentoring can come from above, below, and peers; every Airman is a mentor. It’s as much about developing leadership and followership as it is about career progression. You often have little control over where and with whom you serve next, but we’re all responsible for grooming our replacements. It doesn’t matter if you have 18 months or 18 years of service, your mentorship is key. You have something to offer your peers, your boss, and those you supervise.

Senior Airman W’s recommendation reminded me mentoring was about more than formal mentoring events, a career plan, and near- and long-term goals. It was also about the little things you do every day when you interact with others. It could be a conversation at the coffee pot, during lunch, on a job site, during a shop visit, or at a staff meeting. I couldn’t recall any specific conversation with him that would have led him to believe I have the right skill set to help the scouts, but I remembered several seemingly insignificant ones.

Through his recommendation, he had mentored me. He had shown me those conversations were more meaningful than I had realized, and regardless of the location or level you’re planted, you have the ability to groom others for greater responsibility.