Next person up: Why mentoring should be part of our DNA as Airmen

  • Published
  • By Col. Stuart Pettis
  • 821st Air Base Group commander
Between 2007 and 2009, I was honored to serve as the ops officer and commander of an Air Support Operations Squadron charged with providing tactical air control parties to control close air support for ground forces, both in garrison and in Iraq. As you can imagine, as a career space officer, I learned a lot from this experience. One valuable lesson I learned was to ensure that the next person was ready to step up when called.

At the basic level, tactical air control parties consisted of a two-man team, one experienced enlisted member and another younger Airman. In training and exercises, instructors would often pull the experienced member out, forcing the younger member to step up and take control in the scenario. This idea, based on combat lessons learned, permeated this business, forcing all to ensure that the person behind them, "the next man up," was ready. As a commander, this meant that I spent a lot of time mentoring the officers in the squadron to ensure they could take over in the event that I was out of communications, injured or otherwise unavailable. This is a philosophy that we need to adopt in the Air Force.

Most of today's lieutenant colonels, colonels, chiefs and senior master sergeants will be out of the Air Force within a few years. Today's lieutenants and senior airmen will be our captains and staff sergeants very shortly. If we love our Air Force and want to see it succeed in the future, we need to ensure that we're passing on our lessons learned and preparing our replacements for when they step into our jobs.

This needs to be more than just mentoring officers or enlisted members on what it takes to make the next rank. It needs to be practical lessons learned that allow the next generation of leaders to learn from our experience. We need to ensure that our young leaders understand our expectations and sight picture. Often this means not just what we need accomplished, but also the larger picture on why something needs to get done. We should also offer practical advice on methods that have worked for us when accomplishing the mission and motivating our folks.

Note that this mentoring and passing on of lessons learned doesn't necessarily have to be with someone of higher rank. Some of the best mentoring I've received over the years was from senior NCOs. It was the squadron superintendent at my first unit, a senior master sergeant, that taught me to add a vector to all the thrust I had as a second lieutenant. Later, while a young major at a numbered air force, the command chief took an active interest in ensuring that our officers understood enlisted issues and development ... information that I've kept with me for the rest of my career.

In practice, I'd recommend this: when giving a task to someone, provide the context and intent ... ensure the person has your sight picture. When assigning a task that you've had to accomplish before, provide honest lessons learned on what worked for you and what didn't. If an officer, solicit feedback from your senior NCOs; most will be more than happy to share traits they've liked and didn't like from officers they've seen. If enlisted, ask for similar feedback from the officers you work with. Finally, set aside time to provide insight into the profession of arms and leading Airmen. Nothing we do is more important than this as it paves the way for the Air Force's future success.