“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” – John Crosby
“Be the change that you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” – Collin Powell
To Achieve Success, You Must First Be Able To Define Success
The one request that I receive more than anything else, has to do with our mentoring program. While I am more than happy to share anything that we are using in The Colony Fire Department (T.C.F.D.), what people are looking for is a turnkey mentoring program. Unfortunately, because our process is a model, that’s not possible. So what I thought I would do is to offer the steps that I believe are necessary for developing and implementing a successful and sustainable mentoring program.
I need to start by saying that I believe mentoring is the future of fire service training, the point being to make training personal. Training that impacts people on a personal level has proven to stay with them longer because when it is personal, the firefighter takes ownership of the training and therefore their success and survival. After all, what’s more personal than training that increases a Firefighter’s chance for survival?
Like everything else I talk about, to be successful, you must start with the end in mind (Covey). So the question here is, what do you want your mentoring program to produce? If the leadership team can’t answer this question, chances are you will not have success with developing a sustainable mentoring program. First, decide what you want to accomplish, and then decide the best way to get there.
Mentoring v. Coaching
I often hear people using the term mentor to address issues that would be better resolved through coaching. Coaching is generally a more formal approach used to address existing skills and behaviors. A firefighter or fire officer who is struggling with basic skills or lack of knowledge, who requires immediate improvement, would benefit better from the immediate feedback that comes from a coaching relationship.
On the other hand, if your goal is to position a fire officer of firefighter for future success with the organization, a less formal mentoring process based on a one-to-one mentoring relationship would have the greatest value. While the mentoring process may be somewhat formal or more informal, the focus should always be long-term success.
It has been my experience in the fire service, that coaching takes a different teaching and interpersonal skill set than does mentoring. Coaches must have knowledge, they must have skill competency, and they must have the courage to do the right thing. Coaching works well during indoctrination or orientation programs but leaves off where mentoring begins. While the mentoring process should evaluate the application of existing knowledge and skills, the focus should be on mastering skills and applying knowledge to real-world situations. Mentors are usually skilled at turning events into experiences that will last a career. They too must be proficient and knowledgeable, and they must have experience with the organization.
Step 1 – The Model
The first step in developing a mentoring process is to clearly define what the process should produce. Once outcomes are identified, work backward to develop a process that leads up to the achievement of those outcomes. We use a model in T.C.F.D. that clearly states what we hope our mentoring process will produce, and the parts of the model describe what is necessary for a successful mentoring process. By using a model, mentors are empowered to choose and use their own mentoring style, while mentoring towards a defined and consistent outcome. I have yet to see a successful and sustained mentoring program that was mandated or the result of policy. Like customer service, there are certain dos and don’ts, but exceptional customer service is the result of individual compassion and effort.
Step 2 – Changing the Culture
Culture modification often requires breakthrough change. Breakthrough change requires vision, commitment, and managing the culture daily. If the organization is struggling with committing to quality training, a mentoring program will likely also struggle. Once the organization embraces training, learning, and investing in the next generation of firemen and fire officers, mentoring is the next step to make sure they succeed and survive in those roles long term.
Changing the culture is the most difficult part of the mentoring process, and often the most feared. To reach full potential, mentoring must be supported by a learning culture. If the organization does not value training and learning, the members will not value the benefits of mentoring. Too often a “mentoring program” is put into place in hopes of solving deep-seated cultural or climate issues. While any form of mentoring can be beneficial with the right people, it should not be viewed as a cure for all that is wrong. Outside of a learning culture, mentors become discouraged and feel defeated because they are always going against the grain, and eventually the program fizzles out. For the program to succeed, support must come from the top, from the Chief of Department. It’s the chief that must provide the leadership, the horsepower, and be the main advocate for the process.
Step 3 – Mentoring Tools
This is the heavy lifting, and the phase that requires the most work and the greatest attention to detail. In The Colony, we want our mentors to model and teach The Colony Way. For mentors to be successful, the leadership team must provide mentors with the tools that define The Colony Way.
We want our mentors to teach philosophy more than policy. To do that, mentors must understand what the leadership and operational philosophy of the organization is. Coaches address policy, rules, and regulations.
T.C.F.D. operational standard is S.M.A.R.T3. Strategic, Managed, Aggressive, Risk Regulated, Tactics, Tasks, and Techniques. Our Fire Operations Guidelines (FOGs) and coaches address fire ground strategy, incident management, operational aggression, risk management, and company tactics. Mentors focus on the tasks, techniques, and the organization’s commitment to being smart versus just being safe.
Mentoring is a great tool for achieving operational predictability and consistency between shifts and stations. To accomplish this, the organization must provide mentors with the information that describes what that operational predictability and consistency looks like. When leadership or operational guidelines are lacking, the organism (the fire department) will adapt in order to survive. In the absence of leadership and operational direction, micro-cultures such as battalions, stations, and companies will make up their own.
Step 4 – Choosing Mentors
Once the process has been identified, the culture modified, and the mentor’s tools developed and distributed, it’s time to identify mentors. Choosing the right mentors is essential if you hope to achieve the best outcome. Remember mentoring is about people first. While those with mentor qualities should be identified and encouraged to participate, mandating members to be mentors is not the best route to a successful process. Mentors should:
• Have experience with the organization
• Have the ability to turn events (fires) into experiences (experience fighting fire)
• Have a positive attitude
• Be committed to the vision and professional standards of the organization
• Have a passion for the profession
• Be an advocate for the mentoring process
• Be someone who cares about the success of others
• Always be a part of the solution and not the problem
• Be a lifelong learner; a student of the fire service
Step 5 – Support the Process
This is the most important part. If a member(s) commits to mentoring the next generation of firemen and fire officers, the absolute minimum that chief officers and company officers should do is support the process and run interference for any negativity that may arise to defeat the effort, this takes courage. Those that don’t believe in progress, those that don’t participate in training, and those who oppose anything positive, should not be allowed the authority to derail the success of others.
In closing, I have yet to realize anything negative regarding the mentoring of new members and new officers. I can’t imagine why leadership wouldn’t fully support the effort. The only way we are going to be successful in meeting future challenges is to position our people and our organization for success and survival in the firehouse and on the fire ground. This should be job one for all Chief Officers