Developing our Airmen: 3 Effective ways to communicate and mentor

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brad Harbaugh
  • 23rd Special Operations Weather Squadron
During an October 2015 wing commander’s call here, Col. Sean Farrell, 1st Special Operations Wing commander, said an area that Air Commandos really need to get after is “developing Air Commandos.” Farrell, like many leaders, acknowledges mentoring and developing our Airmen as an area that needs improvement. This topic generates a lot of discussion at all levels. So, what is the best way for us to improve how we develop our Airmen? Why is it a common thread that Airmen aren’t being developed as they should? I believe we need to focus on more direct and understandable feedback, look at our Airmen from a career viewpoint, and diversify our mentorship to adapt to each individual Airman’s personality and skillset.

Nothing is more frustrating to me than having to decipher what my boss thinks of my performance. Often, supervisors say, “I’ll give you feedback if you need it.” What does that mean? I argue that every Airman needs feedback – whether good or bad. In order to improve Airman development, supervisors, peers and subordinates should give direct feedback. If you see something another Airman does that stands out, tell him or her about it. Praise the effort and tell others about the solid effort, being sure to attribute the effort back to the Airman. On the flip side, if you see an Airman doing something poorly, talk to him or her. Provide direct and honest feedback about what you see or perceive and then offer feedback for how the Airman can improve. Also, be clear. If somebody isn’t meeting expectations, make that known to the individual. Often, I think we want to be too nice, and we gloss over weaknesses in favor of feelings. Be candid, offer examples and provide guidance. Direct and understandable feedback goes a long way to developing Airmen.

More than just giving direct and understandable feedback, we have to look at each Airman from a career viewpoint. It shouldn’t matter whether the Airman is separating next month or retiring in 20 years. Today, an Airman is a member of the Air Force and we should be career-minded when providing feedback. We need to help envision a road map to success and provide valuable insights into how the Airman can reach their goals along the way. If you develop an Airman only from report to report, you are giving turn-by-turn directions instead of building the entire roadmap. Be prepared for this to take some time, as developing an Airman’s career and life can’t be done in a day.

Finally, we need to adapt our mentorship to each Airman based on his or her personality and skills. Some Airman want to talk for hours, some want to text and others want to learn through observing. Adapt to the Airman’s personality. Also, recognize the skills the Airman possesses and build your development plan around those skills. Understand the Airman’s strengths and capitalize on them, while identifying weaknesses and helping mitigate those areas. Not all Airmen are the same, so why would you develop or mentor them the same? I think you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to develop somebody into a better Airman just by taking the time to understand his or her personality and skills, and adapting your style to suite him or her. I believe this adaptation creates a more comfortable relationship that leads to smoother and more effective communication.

We are a proud service of bright men and women from all walks of life, with many skills to offer our country. For as long as I have been in the Air Force, however, I have heard many Airmen say “we need to get better at developing our Airmen.” To me, we can all make a difference by providing direct and understandable feedback, focusing on career development and adapting our mentoring style to an Airman’s personality and skillset. Try it next time, if you haven’t already. I think you’ll be surprised by the positive difference it makes in how effective you are at Airman development.