Mentoring for BogiDope Pilots (Part 1)

As a pilot, you probably know everything. You’re probably the best at everything you’ve ever tried. You’re probably even excruciatingly humble about it.

Except, you and I both know better, don’t we?

No matter how smart you are or how hard you work, there will always be more for you to learn. As a professional aviator, I expect you to put forth the effort to figure things out for your own damn self!

And yet, there are times when asking the right person for help can save you from countless hours of research. There are also times when no manual, regulation, website, or even YouTube video can give you a concrete answer to a conundrum. It’s time like this that you, yes even you, need a mentor.

Unfortunately, my experience with mentoring is that it’s very much a hit or miss process. The blame for this lies on organizations, mentors, and proteges (I despise the word “mentee” so we’re going to use “protege” instead). We’re going to discuss how your mentoring interactions can be effective, uplifting, and beneficial for all parties.

Today we’re going to look at what mentoring can be and how to make it effective from the protege’s standpoint. Next week we’ll look at how to make the system effective from an organizational standpoint, and when you are a mentor yourself.

Table of Contents

  1. Types of Mentoring Relationships
  2. How to Get a Mentor
  3. How Not to Treat Your Mentor
  4. How to Make Mentoring Meaningful
  5. Conclusion

Types of Mentoring Relationships

In my opinion, the worst type of mentoring setup usually occurs when an organization decides to enact a sweeping mentorship program. Some golden child is chosen to assign mentor/protege pairs that cover the entire unit. The program is announced with much fanfare…and nothing significant comes from it.

The goal of such setups is noble, but the implementation lacks the most critical element. A mentoring relationship needs a reason to work. An arbitrary assignment is not an effective reason.

I have seen one organizational mentoring system work well. My major airline has a corps of volunteer mentor pilots. They’re only allowed to sign up as a First Officer, though they’ve allowed us to continue serving as mentors after Captain upgrade simply because they need the bodies.

Each new hire pilot is assigned a mentor, but the process is far from arbitrary. A team of four lead mentors looks at the background of each new hire and each mentor and tries to match those with both similar background and similar airline aircraft and/or base assignments. Also, a new hire is allowed to request a mentor that he or she already knows.

Now, this level of matchmaking is something any military squadron or other flight department could manage. There’s more that makes my airline’s program different.

As a new hire at a major airline, there are dozens of small pieces of information and learning experiences that can’t be covered in Indoctrination training because there simply isn’t enough time. Much of this is codified in company publications, but it’s a massive undertaking to put all that information together, and then employ it in real life. The purpose of my company’s mentoring program is to give each new hire a seeing-eye-pilot to help him or her enjoy a smoother entry into the industry and avoid making the same mistakes.

This reveals one of the most important characteristics of an effective mentoring program: purpose.

The reason most organization-wide mentoring programs don’t work is they’re too general. You can’t stick two people together and say, “Congratulations. Mentor away.”

In my experience, the best mentoring relationships form naturally, based on a reason or need existing.

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Technical Questions

One of the most common ways to identify a potential mentor is by approaching someone with a technical question. Normally this person is more experienced than and/or senior to you, something that the idea of mentoring suggests should happen anyway.

Sometimes, when you ask a question the person in question rushes to give you an adequate answer but is obviously focused on other things. This isn’t something to get offended over…people get busy. However, it’s a good sign that this is not a quality mentoring relationship in the making.

Other times though, your question is answered with enthusiasm. Maybe the helper takes extra time to give a more thorough answer. Maybe he or she follows up without prompting.

If you get a response like that, you’ll be naturally inclined to go back to that person with your next question. It only takes a couple of iterations of this before you and this person are in a mentor/protege relationship.

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Career Advice

Another situation that frequently causes natural mentoring relationships to form is when you ask someone for career advice. In this case, a bad answer will be a diatribe about what the more senior person thinks, or what happened for him or her.

A good answer; however, will start with more questions. The person involved will start by taking the time to truly understand where you’re coming from and what you want/need. Then, he or she will engage you in a discussion about your realistic options and prospects. Your advisor may already know enough about you to recommend possible courses of action. He or she may refer you to others with information about particular opportunities.

I found one of my mentors this way. We’d gone through a training course together. I got the option to volunteer for an opportunity and shot him an email. His response was a phone call inviting me to lunch. He’s been a fantastic mentor ever since.

For what it’s worth, I’ve also experienced some outstanding mentoring in squadron bars on Air Force bases and in hotel bars on airline layovers.

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In my experience, an informal conversation over food or drink can be a great setting for mentorship.

Shared Goals/Experience

Another effective type of mentoring relationship happens when two people are working toward a common goal or go through a similar experience.

Frequently, one of these two people has been around the community longer than the other. He or she has useful perspectives and strategies on how to succeed at a particular mission. When that person sees a younger member of the unit diligently working toward the same end, he or she will feel inspired to help the junior pilot succeed.

This can backfire, right? If the senior pilot is condescending or pushy, or the junior pilot is too arrogant to take feedback, the two won’t gel and no lasting relationship forms. However, if the two people can have a useful exchange and both make progress toward their shared goal, they’ll be predisposed to continue working together in the future.

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I think our world has taken the idea of patronage too far, and I hate it. People think that having special help from a powerful individual is more important than being good at what you do. If you think this way, you’re wrong. You need to fix yourself and focus on being better at what you do.

That said, a lengthy and successful mentoring relationship almost can’t help but result in the mentor finding cause to recommend his or her protege for valuable opportunities when they arise.

A side-effect of a good mentoring relationship is that both people learn each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations. If the mentor is asked to recommend a person for an award, upgrade, or assignment, it’s only natural that his or her protege will come to mind.

The key to keeping this type of mentoring relationship on the up and up is that as the protege, you should not ask your mentor for the favor. In fact, you need to go out of your way to avoid it. If you aspire to something for which you’re qualified, it’s okay to ask your mentor for a letter of recommendation, but don’t go beyond that. Don’t even imply it. If your mentor decides to put in a good word, that’s on him or her.

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How to Get a Mentor

Before we talk about how to get a mentor, let’s talk about how not to get one.

After arbitrary and/or random assignment, the worst thing you can do is walk up to someone and, out of the blue, ask, “Will you be my mentor?”

“Um hey dude…will you like…be my mentor and stuff?” is not the right way to start.

We already mentioned that an effective mentoring relationship needs a purpose, a “Why.” (And you wonder why this book is #1 in The Pilot Math Bible.) Asking someone to be your mentor without a specific question in mind just isn’t specific enough.

This question is also lazy. It asks the senior person to commit to a lasting obligation to give you advice, on any topic. That’s not how a valuable mentorship starts.

If you have identified someone that you would like to have as a mentor, it’s probably because you’ve identified his or her wisdom at some point. You probably remember that instance because that wisdom would have come in handy for a question you had in the past. There’s a good chance you will encounter another situation for one of the reasons we’ve already identified when this person’s wisdom will again prove useful. Wait for that opportunity to ask for help.

This time, the question isn’t a lazy and generic, “Will you be my mentor?” It’s, “Do you have a few minutes? I’m trying to figure out _______. Here’s what I’ve tried so far, but I’m stuck. Will you help me take another look at it?”

This keeps things actionable and concise. Your new mentor can help answer your question or explore your options and make a recommendation. Then you’re done.

After you make your decision and see how things turn out, the best mentors will ask you how things went. Even if they don’t, you should let him or her know what you decided and what resulted. (This is also a good time to thank that person for his or her help.)

Unless this person responds with indifference or condescension, he or she is, by definition, now your mentor. Notice: at no point in your interactions with this person did they or you use the word “mentor.”

Now that you have a mentor, be sure to treat him or her right.

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How Not to Treat Your Mentor

Just because a person has helped you once, it doesn’t mean you should immediately (or ever) become dependent. I’ve mentored people who end up making me their first stop for even the most inane questions…the kinds of questions that they could look up themselves in less time than it takes them to interrupt whatever I’m doing. I try to be good-natured about it and help anyway, but I’ll admit it gets annoying.

It’s also tempting to become overly familiar with a mentor who outranks you in a military organization or a company. This is a fine line, especially in aviation where we frequently remind ourselves that “There’s no rank in the debrief.”

Your mentor is, almost by definition, busier than you. Respect his or her time.

It’s good to get to know your mentor, and being able to interact effortlessly with him or her is a sign of a good relationship. However, make sure that you still give him or her the respect due to that rank, especially in a military unit or hierarchical organization.

This applies both to in-person interactions, and in your third-person references to your mentor. If you find yourself frequently telling your buddies about how your mentor, Old Joe, said this or that, it’s probably a sign that you’re not being respectful.

This is extremely difficult for your mentor to address with you. He or she values you and your relationship (more on that shortly) and wants it to continue. He or she doesn’t want to alienate you. It’s tough to have that conversation without exerting a chilling effect on your interactions, so please have the self-awareness to prevent this before it happens!

It’s also important that you not start using your mentor as a permission slip. If you find yourself trying to justify an incorrect action by saying, “Well, Captain Depew said I should consider these points and I took that to mean….”

Your mentor will do his or her honest best to give you correct information at all times, and serve as a good influence in your life. Your mentor isn’t perfect though. He or she may make mistakes. He or she may even give bad advice. Your mentor also can’t control how you eventually interpret what he or she has to say. Putting him or her in a bad spot is the worst way for you to abuse the help he or she was trying to give.

But enough about the negative, right? We can do better.

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How to Make Mentoring Meaningful

Let’s us proteges take a step back and ask ourselves another “Why” question:

Why did my mentor decide to help me?

We’ve just identified a bunch of ways this relationship can be detrimental to the mentor. We’ve also noted that, by definition, he or she is the mentor because you have less knowledge or experience. You’re not going to have much valuable advice for your mentor, at least not anytime soon.

It’s a fact of the universe that there’s no such thing as altruism. Your mentor isn’t helping you just out of the good of his or her heart. On some level, your mentor feels gratified to be needed, to be able to demonstrate his or her expertise, and to be appreciated. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but the best mentors do what they do for an even more important reason.

If you get a chance sometime, read Ayn Rand’s essay on The Ethics of Emergencies in Chapter 3 of The Virtue of Selfishness. It’s a terrible title by a mediocre writer (we can sniff out our own), but the ideas are spot on. In this essay, an avowed libertarian (well “objectivist”) makes the strongest case I’ve ever heard in favor of giving charitably to others without expecting anything in return. I think her reasoning applies to the best mentors.

Rand’s reason for helping others is simply that you recognize in them a potential for human greatness. By helping a protege, a mentor can help that greatness be realized. This benefits the protege, the organization in which they both serve, and it makes the world a better place. That kind of excellence is worth celebrating, and it’s worth using your time and energy to bring about.

You should aspire to have your mentor look at you like a pilot and a great crew chief look as they salute each other. Both knows they’re doing their best for each other and take simple joy in the other’s excellence.

So, one of the best ways to make your mentoring relationship worthwhile is to put your mentor’s advice to good use and achieve whatever goals you asked him or her about in the first place. Ideally, your achievement of these goals will benefit your unit or organization as well.

Another way to honor your mentor’s advice is to not keep it a secret. This is different than the lazy name-dropping that signifies the bad kind of patronage. When your peers or subordinates would benefit from the same advice or information you were given, take a moment to share it. If you learned something from your actions after taking that advice, it might also be worth sharing with those around you.

You don’t necessarily even need to mention that your new insights came from your mentor. (You may not even realize it.) However, it’s okay to occasionally praise his or her wisdom in public, as long as it’s a genuine compliment and not a way to advertise your worthiness as that person’s protege.

Since your mentor is probably in your relationship because he or she recognizes your potential for greatness, be sure to share your successes with your mentor in a spirit of thanks and humility. You’ll know you’ve done well when you see his or her chest swell just a bit with pride.

A minor point that goes with this principle is that your interactions should not be limited to times you need help. Although mentorship is different and (frequently) separate from friendship, you should still make sure that you and your mentor keep in touch.

Share good news from your life. Watch for your mentor’s achievements and be sure to communicate your congratulations. Watch for opportunities to bring up topics of discussion that are generally applicable to you both, though not a conundrum you’re currently facing. In a military unit, this could even involve tactics or logistics.

There’s a fine line here. You don’t want to be annoying and you don’t want to monopolize your mentor’s time. However, part of the reason he or she chose to mentor you is that you have some common ground. Be sure to actively and meaningfully cover that ground.

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We all need mentors. You may not even realize who some of your mentors are. If you put your mentors’ advice to good use, you will achieve more good in the world than you could have done by yourself.

Organizations want mentoring relationships because they recognize that everyone benefits from them.

Remember though, that there are right and wrong ways to acquire a mentor, and right and wrong ways to treat them after your relationship has been formed. Don’t ever approach a current or potential lazily. Bring him or her a specific question, ask it, then leave and take action. Hopefully, the results will be positive, but return to your mentor and let him or her know either way.

A good mentor will take the time to get to know you, and will celebrate your successes out of a genuine desire to see you achieve and for those around you to benefit from your increased capabilities.

Now that we’ve identified the qualities of a good protege, it’s time to look at how we can be good mentors to those around us. We’ll also touch on how more senior leaders can foster effective mentoring in their units. Tune in next week for Part 2.

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Image Credits:

The feature image of mentoring happening in a helicopter was taken by John O’Nolan on Unsplash.

Thanks to Joshua Ness on Unsplash for the coffee shop photo.

The Camo COVID mask mentoring session is from:

The misused thoughtful millennial was shot by Tom Morel on Unsplash.

The F-35 crew chief and his pilot are from:

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