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Modeling Mentoring

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Skip Powers
March 19, 2018

Growing up, I survived on instilled values of mentors. Four decades later, I continue to receive value from mentors and realized this past week, I still seek to be mentored. This realization made me wonder, if, as administrators, we are doing enough to model mentoring behaviors and do we seek to be mentored?

Impressionable would be a good descriptor of me as a young firefighter — a profession that heralds the value of apprenticeship mentoring. A mentor shared his formula for success in the fire service: education. This mentorship moment cemented my career trajectory and instilled a thirst for learning and teaching. Carnegie Melon Professor Randy Pausch was often asked how he became the youngest tenured faculty ever? His reply, “…come by my office Friday night at 10 o’clock and I’ll tell you.”

Like Professor Pausch, I spared no expense and devoted the requisite time to seek knowledge – often among senior level Chief Officers, where, modeled mentorship reigned, and promotion seeds planted.

Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunaci (1937 – 2017) proselytized a “be nice” approach. Bruno taught a service mantra (a mentoring descriptor) using the “Mrs. Smith” approach. One favorite story is that of Mrs. Smith’s fuzzy pink slippers — a lesson that Bruno shared to connote that no matter what kind of day you are having, Mrs. Smith is having a worse day.

Mrs. Smith, raced to the Emergency Room by paramedics who pushed lifesaving measures into her body, will never recall the life-saving transport. Mrs. Smith will recall the paramedics who retrieved her fuzzy pink slippers and brought them to her. This Mrs. Smith approach morphed into leadership lessons that revolutionized our profession to model mentoring leadership behaviors.

I met Bruno at a conference in 1998. Being an impressionable Lieutenant amid a sea of Chief Officers was daunting. I recall walking into the lounge to see Bruno enjoying himself. I seized opportunity to interrupt his solitude. Before I knew it, the mentoring moment was occurring! Bruno was sharing (on a cocktail napkin) his Risk/Reward matrix that revolutionized Command Principles. For 90 minutes, I received modeled mentoring from the master. It was a crystallizing moment.

Armed with Mrs. Smith parables and Risk Modeling Principles, I was ready to find what’s next. It was then, I received a modeled mentoring token — in the form of a book by Mister Rogers, a childhood development personality. In his book The World According to Mister Rogers was a line that struck a chord—“…endeavor to inspire and believe in the power of humanity.” I doubt Bruno and Mister Rogers ever met—but their lesson was never clearer: we are called to model mentoring behaviors. Be nice. Inspire others.

These formidable lessons shaped my career. I continue to herald the Mister Rogers mantra and joined thousands who mourned the recent passing of Chief Brunacini. Both will never know how their modeled mentoring moments shaped my leadership style.

Mentoring and leadership, much like education, is lifelong. We must consistently seek opportunities to replicate and seek new opportunities to receive. Like a bank account, you deposit and withdraw. This weekend, like the lounge experience some two decades ago, I sat in awe by a modeled mentoring moment before me while attending a NASPAA accreditation review.

I had heard speeches by Dr. Richard Schneider previously. They were great and inspiring messages for the citizen soldier graduates. None of those speeches stood out to me—but the message was not for me—they were for the graduates who were receiving the challenge to go forward and contribute.

However, this particular evening, over the salad course, I sat in awe as this modeled mentor lamented how we must forge new partnerships in our quest to maintain relevancy.” I found myself drawn by a charismatic confidence and vision to shape the next generation of thought leaders. His message was about building citizens of character and preparing them for contributions to society.

That evening, I retold my interaction with Dr. Schneider and lamented how I would love to be mentored by this purpose driven leader. The question posed to me, “why don’t you ask him to mentor you?” An “A-Ha” moment just occurred! We are called to mentor — but we must also seek mentorship. There is no magic theory or methodology that is a one-size fits all, lifetime formulae. No… in fact, it was crystal clear to me that the Bruno’s and the Mister Rogers and the Dr. Schneider’s were a compilation of mentors in-place at the right time to impart the right message, so I might pronounce to some other impressionable person — modeled mentoring moments.

The road to success is rarely straight. It is wrought with twists, turns, obstacles and challenges. Along the way, the journey produces experiences that are replicable. I choose to replicate modeled mentoring moments and will continue to seek the mentoring moments ahead.

Waiting in my inbox upon return to DC this weekend was an aptly timed request from a student soliciting a recommendation for a doctoral program. The request was humbling and recalled my teaching style as having an impact on their experience and planted a seed for them to pursue the next academic challenge. Humbled, I wrote the recommendation and will follow up this recommendation with my own request to Dr. Schneider to consider mentoring me.

What are you doing to model mentoring moments? We all have a Bruno or a Mister Rogers or a Dr. Schneider experience to share. Find a mentee moment. Seek a mentor opportunity.

Author: Bill “Skip” Powers, PhD is an author, lecturer, Air Force Veteran and Senior Advisor with 25 years’ experience in federal government. Focus areas include emergency management, human capital, continuity, resiliency, and grants management. [email protected]


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