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K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.

The Right Attitude to be a Mentor

When I first reported to my duty assignment with the US Air Force, there were 3 sergeants in my shop. One was away on a special project and I wouldn't see much of him for the next six months. That left a staff sergeant I'll call James and a technical sergeant I'll carry Harry. Those weren't their real names, but they'll do for this post. If you're not familiar with USAF rank structure, a technical sergeant outranks a staff sergeant.

I come from a Marine dependent background. My father and one of his brothers, the uncle I was closest to, were both retired Marine enlisted. And I had heard numerous stories of dumb things new officers did thanks to these two men. As I approached graduation from The Citadel and pinning on my new second lieutenant rank, those stories only got worse. Finally, there was a break as my dad gave me some plain advice, "Find yourself a good staff NCO, tell him you know you need help, and if he believes you and he's a good NCO, he'll help you." For those not from a military background, NCO stands for non-commissioned officer and is generally used to mean anyone who isn't an officer. In the US Marine Corps, once one attains the rank of staff sergeant, he or she goes from being an NCO to a staff NCO. The US Air Force doesn't have that clear distinction, but I knew what he meant.

So naturally, when I got to my base and checked into my shop, I talked with both sergeants. I wanted to find a good NCO who could help me navigate my initial time with the US Air Force so I wasn't your stereotypical "butter bar." In talking with both James and Harry, it became apparent very quickly that Harry didn't want any part of helping anyone else. But James threw his arm around me and said, "Don't worry, Lieutenant, you stick with me and I'll take care of you." And James was true to his word. Even though we both changed shops during my four year tour, for the three and a half years James was still in, he looked in on me. If I didn't know the best way to approach something, I could ask James. Don't get me wrong, I had peers and more senior officers I could talk to, too. But for those I came into contact with a lot, James had more experience, especially when it came to the way the US Air Force and specifically my base worked. Plus, there's a different point-of-view from the enlisted perspective. And that view is valuable. So I found myself talking to James a lot over the years. And I was better for it.

Now for those keeping score at home, technically as an officer I outranked both James and Harry. But from an experience perspective, I started with virtually none. We often think of mentors as being someone who is higher up on the chain, but that's not always the case. I know that I learned a lot about the right way to do things and about leadership from James. The way he talked about taking care of those he supervised, the way he prioritized different tasks based on the real mission, and the way he looked to preserve a balance between mission and people (mission is always first, but you've got to try and take care of your people or you won't have anyone left for the next mission) was demonstrated in real life, in front of my eyes. When I had to make certain decisions about my own duties, about how to approach something, James always had solid advice for me to consider. He was also very willing to say, "I don't know," when he didn't know something. James was a great mentor for me. And I'll always respect him for it and be in his debt. When I am mentoring someone else, I try to take the same sort of approach James did with me. He had the right attitude and the right heart. I want to try and do the same.

But before I close the post, there's another guy in the story, and that's Harry. Harry wasn't interested in helping anyone else. He outranked James and had been in longer than James. I would be working more with Harry over time, and Harry knew it. So it was actually in Harry's best interest that I do the best job possible. But Harry only cared about Harry. I never saw him extend a hand to anyone else unless he was ordered to. Sad, I know, that he had risen to the rank he had (and he would be promoted further) with that kind of attitude. Harry was probably in the best position to mentor a young lieutenant, especially in that shop. But his attitude prevented him from doing so. I've seen folks like Harry over the years and every time I do, I shake my head. Yes, it takes time and effort to be a mentor. Yes, sometimes someone you're mentoring will let you down. But when you get that person who is eager to learn, willing to try, and wanting to get better, all that time and effort is worth it. James understood that. Harry didn't.

So if you're looking for a mentor, make sure you find not only someone who can help you grow, but someone with the right attitude. You want someone like James, who will throw his arm around you and say, "If you stick with me, you'll be okay," and means what he says. It's not just about who should be the most capable. It's also about whether or not the person is willing. And if you want to be a mentor, remember that your attitude is part of being a good mentor. It's not just about knowledge transfer. It's also about caring for your protégés and wanting to see them grow. You have to have the right attitude to be a mentor.

Comments

Posted by Tim Mitchell on 6 January 2010

What a great story!  I've experienced both James and Harry in my career, though not normally side-by-side for such an effective contrast.  Thanks for sharing.

Posted by dbamark on 7 January 2010

Great article and everyone, please share your experiences with those you work with, as your shop (and you) will only be the better for it!

Posted by Steve Jones on 7 January 2010

Excellent story. Thanks, Brian.

Posted by bbothma on 8 January 2010

I agree - Without mentors we loose a great opportunity of growth.  I at this Warrant Officer who teach me more than any leadership course I've attended.  I will always be thankful for how Jesus put her on my way...

Posted by bbothma on 8 January 2010

I agree - Without mentors we loose a great opportunity of growth.  I was previlidged for having Warrant Officer who taught me more than any leadership course I've attended(Including officers formative).  I will always be thankful for how Jesus put her on my way...

Posted by Sreejith P S on 8 January 2010

Greate article, Thanks Brian.

Posted by Dave Schutz on 8 January 2010

I was enlisted in the military for 20 years and had a few good mentors, and was able to mentor several young officers as well as many enlisted. Mentoring others made the team stronger and helps to build the future of our great armed forces.

And I thank Brian Kelley, Steve jones, and all the others who spend their time writing and teaching so that the rest of us can learn without having to make all the mistakes. It's good to learn from others who have made the mistakes before you.

Posted by Lynn Pettis on 8 January 2010

Very good post, Brian.  I served in the Air Force in the enlisted ranks.  My first supervisor was my best mentor.  I know I "ticked" him off, however, when I got out of the Air Force at the end of 4 years with a line number for Staff Sergeant.  However, the lessons and skills he taught me while I worked with him for 2.5 years have stayed with me over the years.

Posted by david.stein on 8 January 2010

That was a great read Brian. Thanks.

Posted by jeff.kunkel on 8 January 2010

Great Article! Thanks Brian.

Posted by martinsbng on 8 January 2010

This happens in all sectors and not just the military. If we have more of "James" around, going to work will be so much more pleasant.

Posted by fthomas on 8 January 2010

Good article. I have learned that many times people will try and take avantage of you if you are always a 'James'. They will try to get you do do their work. I think having some 'Harry' in you is a good thing. You have to know when to be 'Harry' and when to be 'James'.

Posted by bloggerpillai on 8 January 2010

Wow. Good read on a Friday morning. Just well done. Thanks!

Posted by Steven Willis on 8 January 2010

Thanks Brian. I was an Air Force Staff Sergeant once and then after college re-entered as a 2nd Lt. So I've been on both sides of the equation! I was fortunate to have the opportunity to mentor and to be mentored to. In my experience most people are not jerks like "Harry," but they are out there! Now, if you're not busy, I could use a box of sky hooks. :-)

Posted by talltop on 8 January 2010

Harry's attitude is very common in the IT industry as well , and much of it is linked to job security among higher paid senior staff. Many senior people are just flat out reluctant to teach and train other new lower paid junior people in fear that they will lose their job to them. It is strictly a money thing nowadays for most companies today and most senior people know it, I have seen this happen on many occasions in the past so it is not so hard to understand why it happens.

Posted by vaswani77 on 8 January 2010

Thanks, Brian, for sharing such a great story. It drove the point home!

Posted by VALEK on 10 January 2010

I am a definite James, and have seen Harry's quite a lot.

Most of them are naturally not good at sharing, which I call bad team player skills, but sometimes it feels like they think they are protecting their warm spot.

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 12 January 2010

Valek,

 in this case, the guy was capable of sharing. When he was ordered to, he did a good job. He chose not to unless forced to by a superior.

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