Stepping Up: Mentoring

By Ron Hiraki

Knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are learned by studying and by participating in classes or training drills. Most people develop KSAs by watching more experienced people. Learning occurs by observing good methods and not-so-good methods. Application and practice usually occur when you have to “do it.” This form of “on-the-job training” can be refined, enhanced, and even accelerated by using mentors.

A mentor serves as a coach; a counselor; an advisor; an advocate; and, eventually, a friend to a mentee. A mentor should not be the mentee’s supervisor. Within the fire service, informal mentoring has been occurring for many years. Officers and firefighters have teamed up to help each other improve job performance. A few fire departments have formal mentoring programs in which the mentor and mentee mutually select each other and the fire department recognizes and supports the professional relationship. Without this recognition, the mentee’s supervisors can impede mentoring by increasing the workload, not allowing any mentoring on-duty and not allowing the mentee to do anything that is not in his job description. Good supervisors support and supplement by paving the way with potential mentors and providing advanced opportunities. These progressive fire departments support the program by training mentors; making some on-duty time available for mentoring; and providing some financial resources for reference materials, textbooks, or additional training.

History, traditions, lessons learned, and other members’ experiences can be critical to going home safely and successfully accomplishing the mission. Mentors can share their experiences, both good and bad, with the mentee. It’s a shame when a member with 25 or 30 years of experience retires without having mentored a newer member. When that happens, his or her experience “retires” too. Fire departments need to tap that resource before that member retires. Experienced members need to step up and offer to share their experience to newer members. Don’t equate rank or seniority with experience. Unfortunately, some people can achieve rank or seniority without having commanded a lot of fires, taught classes, solved employee problems, or resolved complaints. Although no one is perfect or is an expert in every area, mentors should be chosen for their overall track record.

FOUR PHASES OF MENTORING

According to William H. Holley and Kenneth M. Jennings in Personnel/Human Resources Management: Contributions and Activities1 mentoring is comprised of four distinct phases. Whether your fire department’s mentoring program is informal or formal, it is important to understand the four phases.

Initiation: The relationship begins and has importance for the mentor and the individual. Specific expectations are agreed upon. The mentor and individual may work together on a task or project. The mentor provides objectives and technical support and is readily available as a coach. The mentee provides respect and a desire to be coached and performs a majority of the technical work.

Cultivation: Career and social interactions occur. Both members benefit from the relationship and exchange of information. There are more frequent and meaningful meetings. The mentor and mentee develop a friendship.

Separation: A significant change takes place in the relationship. The mentee wants the opportunity to work alone. The mentor and the mentee have less time to work or socialize together.

Redefinition: The relationship ends. The mentor and the mentee become peers or friends. The mentee no longer needs the mentor relationship. The mentor recognizes the mentee’s new level of knowledge and experience. The mentee shows appreciation for the mentor.

When the mentor and the mentee mutually select each other and agree to work with each other, there is a level of respect and desire that is essential to the process
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Successful mentoring benefits both members equally. Fire departments should recruit, train, and maintain a list of qualified mentors. Individuals should then express an interest in a few mentors. The mentors can then determine if they have the KSAs, experience, time, and desire to work with individuals. These are suggested practices, not hard rules for a mentoring program.  

QUALITIES OF A MENTOR

The qualities of a mentor include the following: 

  •  Desire
  • Technical knowledge
  • Superior performance
  • Experience
  • Teaches and leads by example
  • Willing to be an advocate for the mentee
  • Is not the supervisor of the individual

HOW THE MENTOR CAN HELP THE MENTEE

  • The mentor helps to identify specific objectives for the mentee to accomplish.
  • The mentor provides technical support. This may include directing the mentee to specific reference books or materials, or helping the mentee contact other members who can help.
  • The mentor provides support and feedback. The mentor acts as an advocate for the mentee. 
  • The mentor is an effective delegator. The mentor does not conduct training sessions for or constantly work with the mentee. The mentor outlines tasks that need to be done.
  • The mentor gives assistance when needed and leaves the mentee alone to do the work.
  • The mentor gives credit for successful work to the mentee. This gives the mentee a sense of accomplishment and builds self-confidence. The successful mentee is a credit to the mentor. 

BENEFITS OF MENTORING

Following are some examples of possible mentoring relationships and some of the benefits to the mentee, the mentor, and the fire department.

  •  A veteran firefighter mentors a probationary firefighter.
    • The probationer has a resource for technical information and advice.
    • The probationer learns from the veteran’s experience.
    • The veteran has an opportunity to review or update knowledge and skills.
    • The veteran develops training and supervisory skills
    • The organization improves, since the experience of veterans is passed along and does not retire with the veterans.
    • Company officers save some time, since the mentor can perform functions presently performed by the company officer.
  • A captain or veteran lieutenant from a different station mentors a new lieutenant.
    • The new lieutenant receives advice from a veteran officer who is not an evaluator.
    • The new lieutenant develops social relationships through the veteran officer
    • The veteran enhances his self-esteem by sharing knowledge and experience.
    • General operations are improved as the new lieutenant uses more human resources.
  •  A deputy chief mentors a captain. 
    • The captain gains administrative knowledge and experience without being assigned to administration.
    • The deputy can obtain help on selected issues or projects
    • The deputy gets an operations perspective on the issues or project.
    • Quality is enhanced as more members gain a sense of “ownership” in the department.

Participating in a mentoring relationship is one way for both the mentor and mentee to step up. Everyone is touched by their dedication and benefits.

REFERENCE

1. Holley, William H., & Jennings, Kenneth M. Personnel/Human Resource Management- Contributions and Activities (Second Edition). (New York, NY: The Dryden Press, 1987.)

Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He has a master of science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

 

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