Being a Mentor

I’ve wanted to blog for a long time, but have debated what theme to center a blog around. I’ve many interests, so I finally decided to just blog on what’s got my attention and strikes me as interesting.

So to start out I wanted to write about my experiences as a mentor on my local search and rescue team. When I joined the team in 2007, I was assigned a mentor who really didn’t do much mentoring. This was a mix of him and me. I think he figured if I wanted help I’d go to him, rather than reaching out to me. And when I needed help or advice, I’d go to the people I’d found to be good teachers on specific subjects. I figured out who I could best learn knots from and who was better at explaining navigation and went directly to them. I was not shy.

Once I got through my training year and became a Support member, I continued to do the same. With new skills I would seek out whomever I thought could best teach me the material. And if I didn’t get it from them, I’d try someone else. And I watched other Support members around me have new members assigned to them as mentees while I did my own thing. But finally I was asked to mentor someone. A young woman who seemed really interested.

I was excited that our training director had assigned a new female member to me, because we were lacking on female membership for a while. While I know his reason was that a woman might do better paired with a woman (not necessarily so given our team dynamics), I was happy because I think we were at a place where we really needed to foster and encourage participation by women on the team. And I think having come in with only two other women on the main team I was in a position to help a woman find her place among all the men.

So I got a mentee. And she got a job elsewhere and moved before we’d really even met each other. Sigh. But all was not lost. Because months later I was assigned two people — one who’d come to the team because her boyfriend is a member and the other who had long been involved, but hadn’t advanced to Support. I was excited about the first and kind of scared about the latter and it showed.

I talked to my beloved E fairly regularly. Not always about team stuff, but just building a relationship with her. And I always let her know that I was there if she needed me, but I’d probably be pretty hands off. For two reasons: 1) she’s like me and is comfortable going to whomever she thinks will be the most help on a given problem, and 2) she came in with a fair amount of knowledge already. So with E I was there if she needed me and just check in now and then at meetings to remind her to call me if she needs me. At trainings I give her pointers, I encourage her, and I give her positive feedback along with correction when needed. And it has been great.

It’s been my goal with E to be the mentor I would want to have if I were to go back in time and get to pick myself as a mentor. (If that makes sense.) Last week we had a training that was… problematic. There were a lot of things that weren’t great, but there were good moments mixed in. I had volunteered to be the live subject in a multi-victim avalanche simulation. E was the head of the medical team in the field and as we discussed the training after, a lot of things were said that left her feeling really upset (not just about her own performance, but behaviors of other team members and the overall evaluation).

E e-mailed me that she was going to take some time off from the team because she was so bothered by it. Oh no, I thought. No! You are mine! You are my first mentee who will become a Support member. I seriously worried that if she took time off she’d never come back. Fortunately, we’ve gotten to know each other and built a friendship as well as a mentor/mentee relationship. I let her know that while there had been problems there were ways she’d impressed me at that training. I let her know what she did right and exactly why those right things make her an important member of the team. I wanted her to feel valued and in the end she did (and does). And she’s sticking around. And I felt like such a success.

But I’ve got another mentee, K, with whom I don’t have the same experience…

K is one of those people who can be hard to be around. Her personality is sometimes abrasive. Her learning style is challenging. And she is plagued by coming to the team via the Dog team which used to be separate (and there are politics there that are slowly being overcome). There have been times in the past when I have wanted to smack K upside the head during a training. I considered myself blessed to never be on a team with her during an actual mission. And I know that my opinion of her hasn’t always been fair, but it’s been a challenge to be friends with her. So when I was assigned to be her mentor I kind of pretended I hadn’t gotten the message.

I’m not proud of that, but I struggled a lot with how to approach her. I worried she’d be annoyed because she joined the dog team before I joined the main team. But this weekend I volunteered myself to help the dog team with some training (being a subject to trail) and before we started I finally talked to K. It turns out she’s been just as leery of talking to me as I had been of her. I pretty much laughed at myself after this.

She was upset at first to be assigned a mentor who hadn’t been on the team as long as her (and then be told that even with less time I know more than her — something that could have been put more delicately than it was). But she is in a bind now that if she doesn’t get to Support soon she may be asked to step down completely. I took some time to explain to her what being Support really means in terms of our membership with the Mountain Rescue Association that I think helped a lot (for her and another dog team person also seeking Support status right now). And then I told her I’d do whatever she needs to get her to Support and asked her to bring her paperwork to training this week.

We had a really good conversation and I realized at the end that she will be more work than E, but that it’s because she needs more attention than E. I was flabbergasted that she hasn’t had any skills signed off on over the last several years. And I know for a fact that most of the things can probably be approved by me in one sitdown review. It makes me feel terrible that I 1) didn’t talk to her sooner and 2) NO ONE ELSE gave her the time of day. WTF? I’m a big fan of advocating for oneself, but I can see that she just didn’t get that this was important and nobody explained to her why it would be. It leaves me pretty angry at some teammates who should have done something with her before I ever came on seen as mentor, but I’m going to get her where she needs to be.

I hope I can give K the sense of belonging that I’ve been able to give E. And I hope I can get them both approved as Support members in the next few months. I want my mentees to soar and then I want to tuck somebody else under my wing until he (or she) is ready to soar too.