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Business Journal

Buddy System

by Peter Economy

Like many organizations today, the United States Air Force is having a tough time retaining its best people. It invests a considerable amount of time and money -- estimated by a congressional source at more than $6 million per person -- to train its pilots. Still, in 1997 only 36% of pilots who had reached the end of their initial nine-year service commitment agreed to stay on -- far short of the organization's goal of 50%. That same year more than 800 pilots refused $60,000 bonuses to stay an additional five years, choosing instead to separate from the service. The result is a chronic shortage of qualified pilots that places additional pressure on those who remain and threatens the Air Force's ability to execute its mission.


The Air Force has tried a variety of approaches to address this crisis, including increased salaries and cash incentives. But according to Captain Edward "Buzz" Haskell, assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, increasing compensation for Air Force personnel has not had the desired effect. "Many people are not satisfied with current conditions. Senior leaders in the Air Force talk about raising bonuses and retention incentives, but so far money has not been an indicator for people staying," he says. Instead, says Haskell, quality-of-life issues, including how people feel about their careers, their workplaces and their families, have a much greater impact on retention.

These facts weren't lost on the Air Force's top brass. In 1997 mentoring was targeted as a key process for enhancing career development and communication within the Air Force, and then-Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall mandated that the organization implement mentoring programs throughout its operations. But because Widnall's edict did not spell out a strategy, figuring one out became the first order of business for officers like Haskell.

Haskell had already conducted research on mentoring as part of his doctoral dissertation and knew it could be problematic. "Mentoring has been traditionally viewed as top-down," says Haskell. That approach, he says, has led to assigned mentorships, or "forced matching," which Haskell believes does not always work. "The protégés can easily feel stuck with a person they do not respect or wish to emulate."

Haskell turned to Gallup's research on mentoring programs because, he says, "Gallup has the only mentoring research I've ever seen that encourages non-forced matching." By non-forced matching, Haskell means that according to Gallup, organizations allow protégés to select their own mentors, based on criteria established by a mentor-match instrument, which consists of two questionnaires -- one for prospective mentors and another for prospective protégés. The questionnaires assess a variety of areas, including coaching style and experience. For example, protégés are asked to choose between pairs of characteristics that most closely reflect what they would like from their mentors. The results are run through a computer program that provides protégés with scores indicating their compatibility to mentors in each of the assessed areas. A protégé who, for example, prefers a challenging coaching style -- one where his or her coach continually raises the bar for performance -- can be matched with a mentor whose coaching style is challenging.

According to Gallup's director of specialty seminars, Susan J. Bath, research on mentoring shows that two key principles underlie the effectiveness of a mentoring program. "One is that relationship style in matching mentors and protégés makes the difference, in contrast to matching based upon proximity, area of specialty or strengths," says Bath. "The other is that there has to be a structure to a mentoring program. In most cases, if you just put a mentor and protégé together and say 'Go mentor,' it doesn't happen. There has to be some sort of structure -- a workbook or journal to follow." Workbooks help protégés keep track of meetings and progress, and contain assignments to be completed by the protégé before each meeting with the mentor. Haskell considers the workbook invaluable because it clearly spells out what mentors and protégés can and should do.

To assess the effectiveness of the mentoring program in a military environment, Haskell conducted a study of pilots, navigators and electronic warfare specialists in the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. In his three-month study he used the mentor-match instrument to pair 24 junior officers with 24 senior officers in the same job specialty. In a twist on the top-down approach, protégés in Haskell's study used the mentor-match instrument to choose with whom they would be paired. He provided protégés with workbooks and had them meet twice a month with their mentors. "For that one hour that they met, it was 100% about the protégé -- tell me about your career, what do you want to do, what do you think you can do, let me help you with that. It was geared toward the protégé's professional development," says Haskell.

The results were dramatic. According to written questionnaires given to all participants before and after the mentoring program, protégé post-study performance improved over pre-study performance in preparation to supervise enlisted personnel (81.8% reporting above average or excellent after mentoring vs. 40.9% before), self-confidence for promotion prospects (90.9% above average or excellent vs. 63.6% before) and decision-making ability (95.5% above average or excellent vs. 81.9% before). Furthermore, participants reported a higher probability of retention, with 95.5% planning to serve 20 years or more vs. only 72.7% before the study commenced.

The Air Force has seen the future of retaining its best and brightest, and that future includes mentoring. While mentoring is by no means a panacea for the Air Force's retention problems, it has had a positive impact on the careers of an increasing number of people in the organization, including Captain Haskell himself. "Teaching cadets is the greatest assignment thus far," he says. Teaching at the Academy was made possible by his mentor.

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