Mentoring for Success


All great fire departments have some form of mentoring program. If yours doesn’t, the first step you will want to take when developing one is to identify the challenges your fire department as a whole and specific firefighters are facing. Perhaps morale is down. Maybe the overall performance of your company is unacceptable. Or maybe everything is running perfectly and you want to train your new recruits to the high standard others have set. Whatever your reason or challenge, the goal should be to prepare your team for victory and encourage new recruits and new leaders to step up. This, in part, is what a mentoring program can help you accomplish.

What is a mentor? The word “mentor” in Greek mythology was the name of the person to whom Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses) entrusted the care of his son Telemachus when he set out on his journey (now called an “odyssey”) that led him to, among other places, the Trojan War. Mentor was Odysseus’ wise and trusted counselor and the tutor of Telemachus. Hence, a mentor is an experienced individual who can serve as an example and advise his mentee or protégé on ways to improve.

As a department head, a critical step in developing a mentoring program is to first admit that you alone do not determine your department’s or company’s success. The collective efforts of the overall team determine it. Therefore, your effectiveness will multiply if you develop a quality program.

At a young age, you learned about inertia-objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest will remain at rest until an outside force moves them. This is as true for people as it is for a ball rolling down a steep hill. A mentor’s job is to be that outside force that moves a person (or other people) to take appropriate actions.

Mentors should possess certain qualities. They must be experienced in what they teach and be goal oriented, caring, positive, and honest. A mentor must also be available for interaction on a daily basis if the mentoring program is to be successful. In the fire service, it’s common to match up a probationary firefighter with a competent, ambitious firefighter. It is also wise to match up a “soon-to-be-sworn-in” officer with an experienced officer of the same rank. The goal is to reduce the time it takes to prepare that individual for the job by matching that person up with someone who has been doing that job correctly for years.

How many individuals can one person mentor? This is difficult to determine without knowing the particulars of the department, but many experts in corporate America believe the ideal number is somewhere between one and five. Five “key individuals” seems to be the maximum number a good mentor could handle efficiently. The problem is, key people don’t have the words “I’m a key person” tattooed on their foreheads. You have to first identify them.


Most of the time, we may not have a choice of the people to mentor. Obviously, we want to help develop the probationary firefighter. But suppose that your department is experiencing members’ overall poor work performance. In that circumstance, you may want to choose specific individuals to train, to reduce the learning curve, motivate, and equip them with the tools to help them reach their full potential.

Attributes of a Prospective Mentee

When selecting mentees, look for the following characteristics:

  1. Eager to grow/change. Desire is the key to motivation, and motivation is the key to change. The people you choose must be willing to grow and should have accepted the fact that to change things, they, themselves, have to change. They should be teachable, which implies that they are humble enough to admit they don’t have all the answers.
  2. Willing to invest time. We’re all busy, but busy people get things done. Look for busy people engaged in activities consistent with success. If a person is disrespectful and acts as if he doesn’t have time to meet with or talk with you, this is a problem that goes beyond mentoring and should be dealt with accordingly. Look for mentees who value the mentoring time and act on the knowledge passed down to them.
  3. Positive attitude. Without the right attitude, the efforts of a mentor will be wasted. The mentee should be excited about the opportunity. Choose a person who is coachable and wise enough to recognize that the future is not in any job but in the attitude of the person holding the job.
  4. Respectful. Few things are more bothersome than putting forth an effort that is not matched by the person you are trying to help. A respectful person appreciates that others see promise in him.
  5. Purposeful. Does the prospective mentee intend to apply what he learns from you? If not, you risk spending your “quality” time with the wrong person. To have purpose means the mentee is willing to work to achieve the desired end result.
  6. Confident. This is the least important attribute because, many times, confidence comes with knowledge, and that’s what the mentoring will be providing. With that said, every successful person must have some confidence. Success and confidence go hand-in-hand. People are attracted to someone who is confident and in control.
  7. Loyal. Investing time and effort in someone who has not displayed a sense of loyalty could backfire in the end. Loyalty should not be a requirement only for those who join your department. It is also a requirement for success in general. Master motivator Zig Ziglar maintains, “Loyalty is the #1 key to success.”
  8. Willing to be accountable. Accountability is the best way to measure the progress of a mentor’s work. Accountability is the modern day form of a progress report. Mentors and their protégés should communicate regularly to ensure that the actions the mentee is taking will produce results that will benefit both parties and the department as a whole.

When choosing the individuals to be mentored in your program, remember that these people are your ladder to success. Investing in them will provide a win-win scenario, benefiting you and your department as much as it does them.


The first rule of thumb when talking about mentoring is to begin with the end in mind-in other words, you must have a clear picture of what you want your protégés to become. To do this, you must clearly communicate your objectives to the mentee, who should have the same goal. Once that is established, you can begin the mentoring process.

Below are some suggestions to help get you started:

  • Choose your mentees. Using the selection process outlined above, choose the firefighters who need you to raise their game to the top and achieve their dreams.
  • Begin the connecting process. Reach out and discuss your intentions with them. Make sure they are on the same page as you. Clarity is the key. The goal is to connect, communicate, and train regularly.
  • Begin to equip them. Once you know what talents, skills, and abilities your mentees possess and you have determined the end result you are both seeking, it’s time to equip them with whatever tools they are missing. Leading by example is often the best way to instill someone with the desire to improve. The following five-step process has proven successful when guiding mentees in how to complete a task:
    -You do it as they watch.
    -You do it together.
    -They do it. You watch.
    -They do it alone.
    -Encourage them to duplicate the mentoring process.
  • Encourage them! Mentoring is a source of positive enforcement. Encouragement will breed courage. I have often said and wholeheartedly agree that a person will rise or fall to your level of expectations for him. Also remember that you should always affirm publicly.
  • Inspire and motivate them to be self-motivated. You can do this by casting a vision. Intimidation doesn’t motivate people; accomplishing their dream does. Once you discover what a person’s dream is, use that dream to provide fuel for the fire-and inspire! If you are an officer mentoring a firefighter who also wants to become an officer, that alone could be the motivation the individual needs to stay focused.


People rarely improve when they have only themselves to copy. When it comes to mentoring, remember that those who surround themselves with people who are smarter and more talented than they are and are just as driven radically increase their chances of success. Don’t ever reach a point in your life where you foolishly believe you don’t need a mentor of your own. Every day, remind yourself that you will not learn anything new by talking. If you are going to learn anything at all, it will be through asking the right questions of the right people and listening.

COUNSELING vs. mentoring

Counseling, although similar to mentoring, is completely different. In the fire service, counseling is offered when personal issues affect an individual’s work performance.

Recognizing when counseling is needed and proactively addressing the issue without being intrusive require greater knowledge and skills than an average team leader possesses. As a mentor or department head, when you become aware that one of your department member’s performance is being affected by personal issues, it is wise to take that person aside and ask if there is anything he needs to talk about. Based on the answer you receive, you should be able to determine if this is an issue you can help with by following the steps above or if this is a case where professional counseling is needed. If the latter, it’s best to offer support and leave the counseling to the professionals.

FRANK VISCUSO is a career deputy chief from Kearny, New Jersey. He is an instructor who specializes in officer and leadership development. He is the author of four books including Step Up and Lead (PennWell, 2013).

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