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Mentoring: The Next Generation Won’t Just Happen

The time has come for me to share with you the formula for creating a better future for the fire service.  Many people think that things just happen randomly. I am not one of those folks. I think that each of us needs to step forward and take a hand in the creation of a better future for our beloved fire service. 

During my research for this commentary, I came across a very interesting quotation.  I believe it sets the stage for understanding the critical nature of the concept of mentoring. In her text on the concept and process of mentoring, Zachary (2012) shares a bit of folklore to suggest the importance of mentoring. It is a statement which says that, “… if you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel together.” My friends, it is my belief that this is the mindset we must adopt if we are to be success in mentoring our fire department personnel. However, it is my intention to open this visit with you by sharing a cautionary tale.

Let me share a story with you. In the faraway days of my youth back in the 1950’s, it was my duty as a child of that time to watch a lot of television. This then-new device was a growing part of the American Psyche of that time and I guess it was my role to play a role in the growth of the new medium. Whether it was "Howdy Doody," "Winkie Dink," "Rin Tin Tin," or "Father Knows Best," I spent many hours riveted to the flickering screen in our family home across the street from the Nestles’ coffee plant on Jerseyville Avenue in Freehold. 

One of the shows that I ended up watching on the ABC Network was one favored by my parents.  It was called "So You Want to Lead a Band," and starred Sammy Kaye, a popular big band leader of the Big Band Era and his orchestra.  The group was a favorite of my parents, who liked to go dancing when time and finances permitted.  Although it only lasted about one season, this show has remained with me.  I can recall the motto of the band was, “swing and sway with Sammy Kaye.”

Like many shows of the era, it operated according to a simple premise. I guess this was reality TV decades before it was actually invented.  People were selected from the audience and brought up on stage to try and lead the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, I guess it seemed simple enough to most people. These folks thought that all you had to do was just stood in front of the band and wave your arms. As a musician and choir member, I had to learn over the years just what the nuances of the conductors movements meant. 

So you can see where the laughs might come. The band was told to follow the exact movements of the people doing the conducting as they were made.  While the songs were supposed to be familiar, the results created melodies often totally unlike the notes on the music in front of the band members. Little things like taking 90 (or 45) seconds to play the Minute Waltz were the device which created the humor. Or maybe having a John Phillip Sousa march end up sounding like a rock and roll song. 

The key to my story here is that people who were not trained in the art of musical conducting were asked to perform a task for which they were not qualified, nor did they have any knowledge of the ways in which a conductor is able to control the performance of their band. That is the true point of this commentary. My friends, you cannot just ask people to become mentors in your fire department if you are unwilling to understand the importance of selecting the proper people and then training and preparing them for their new role.

It is my desire to come to you with my treatise for creating a mentoring program in your fire department. The future will happen, that is a given. However, the knowledge that is within the minds of your veteran members will not automatically find its way into the brains of your younger and newer members. It is important for your department to realize that unless they take a positive approach to the sharing of knowledge and experience that it will simply disappear when the older members go by the wayside. Let me assure you that none of us will live forever and that the things we do not share die with us when we pass on. 

Zachary (2012) sees mentoring as a learning relationship. Many other researchers see mentoring as a sharing of knowledge, however let me suggest that it is more along the lines of developing a relationship; one in which the mentor and the person being mentored become comfortable enough with each other to develop a two-way feed for the sharing and exchange of knowledge.  It is this concept of sharing which creates the two-way feed which improves the impact of the knowledge exchange. The lack of an active interchange stymies the impact of the interaction between mentor and mentee. 

If you are to succeed as a mentor you must understand that it is not a passing fancy in your life or career.  If you are to become truly effective as a mentor, you must adopt the role of mentor as a way of life.  If you become good at it, it can become a powerful developmental encounter.  It is important to stress to you that mentoring is not something you can do remotely. You have to roll up your sleeves and jump into the process with both feet. 

Should you decide that you or your department are going to consider developing a mentoring program you need to understand that there are some things you need to do to insure your best chance of success. It takes a certain degree of planning and preparation. In the first instance you need to select people who get along with people. In many instances these folks are easy to spot. People flock to them and the can usually be found at the center of most active discussions in your agency.

Of course there are also those people who get along with others who are not necessarily as open and accessible as those to whom I made reference in the last paragraph. Folks like this are your solid, steady performers. They are always there for your fire department. They are always a part of your drill and training programs. They are calm and level-headed. Of course they might take a little bit of coaxing on your part to become involved. But they can be really good mentors if you take the time to convince them to be a part of your mentoring effort.

It is important to recognize that none of us were born to be mentors.  There is a certain amount of training which must be provided. It is important to create a common training level so that all who are going to serve as mentors have the same skills as their associates who are going to be performing the same or similar tasks.

It is also imperative to weed out those folks who have no business becoming mentors. You know the type; the nasty, cynical, people-hating folks who have a general knack for killing any positive buzz at your organizational functions.  I can recall a particular project years ago where the organizers failed to pay attention to this suggestion. The results produced a program which collapsed under the weight of the collective negativity of those who had no right to be a part of the program. The results were imprinted deeply into my mind’s eye.

Maxwell (2008) provides some guidance on certain types of actions for which you must look out. They are:

  • Ego issues
  • Insecurity problems
  • People who do not recognize the opportunities which their efforts can bring to bear upon the success of others
  • One-way street people who specialize in selfish actions
  • Just plain nasty folks (they are out there)

It has been my experience that it is as much about who you are as it is what you actually do. That is why it is so critical to stress that the first step in creating a successful mentor involves the internal makeup of each of us as an individual. Favreau (1969) suggests that it is critical for each of us to come to an understanding of who we are. This is how I have worked all of my career.

It has been my experience that I cannot help you if I am not comfortable with myself. How can I share something with you if I am not totally aware of what it is that I do know? This little rule applies to each and every one of us. We must be comfortable with who we are and what we do before we can help anyone else.

Let me suggest that the creation of an organizational mentoring program involves the creation of an essential learning partnership.  Zachary (2012) suggests that, “... (the) mentor and mentee (must) work together to achieve specific, mutually-defined goals that focus on developing the mentees skills, abilities, knowledge, and thinking…” (p.3).

It is important to understand that the mentee must take an active role in the process. It is not merely a process of spoon-feeding the mentor’s knowledge into the head of the person being mentored. 

Zachary (2012) suggests a number of further elements which must be present for an effective mentoring relationship to take place:

  • Learning must take place
  • A relationship must be developed between the mentor and the mentee
  • A learning partnership must be created
  • Collaboration must take place between the mentor and the mentee
  • Mutually-defined goals must be developed to lay out the pattern of the mentoring relationship and the manner in which it will work
  • Mentoring needs to promote the mentee’s growth and development (p.-4).

After many decades working within the field of adult experience, it has been my experience that people tend to work much harder and more efficiently when they see the reasons for their learning and become involved in the educational process. It is up to the mentor to insure that this happens. Many times during my personal learning journey it has been up to me to set the direction of my learning experience. This was particularly true during the decades when I was actively involved in learning for the civil service promotional testing system. 

Let me also suggest that a need to know can drive the mentor-mentee relationship.  Zachary (2012) notes that “… (L)ife’s reservoir of experience is a primary learning resource; the life experiences of others enrich the learning process” (p-5). It is the tacit knowledge contained within the mind of the mentor which serves as the critical element is the knowledge transfer mechanism that lies at the heart of the mentoring system.

It is critical for me to state for the record that this article is not about coaching.  That is a different process.  In coaching, an actual task is taught to the learner and it is up to the person doing the coaching to hone that person’s ability to perform that particular task in a positive, repetitive manner.  To describe this I like to think back to how my football coach back in high school taught me to master the critical skills of blocking and tackling.  I was shown the correct way and then continually monitored as I practiced these things until I could perform them to his satisfaction.  That is what coaching is all about.

However, this will not happen unless you decide to make it happen.  Talk it up among your members, bring to the floor of your department meeting, and encourage you chiefs to support it.  Once you make the decision to do it, then comes the learning and training of the people who will be your mentors. 

Let me suggest to you that your department will be able to deliver a better level of service over time if you create a mentoring program.  I suggest to you that it is essential for you and your agency to proactively decide to integrate the skills and knowledge of your veterans with the new people who are coming on board every year.  You ignore my suggestion to you at your own peril.  Take positive steps to share what you know while you are still around to do.  

References 

  • Favreau, Donald F (1969). Fire Service Management. New York: The Reuben H. Donnelly Corporation
  • Maxwell, John C. (2008). Mentoring 101. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
  • Zachary, Lois J. (2012).The Mentors Guide for Facilitating Learning Relationships. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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