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Challenging Yourself as a Mentor

I read an article a few years ago about the mentor-mentee relationship that proclaimed “you can’t mentor someone you don’t like.”  I strongly disagree with that philosophy.  Women in the law enforcement profession need to mentor each other, but we don’t always have to like each other.  In fact, if you want to become a truly effective, inspirational mentor, you need to seek out a few mentees you’re not terribly fond of and work at changing their lives and maybe even your own in the process.

First of all, what does it mean to be a “mentor?” The word comes from the character “Mentor” in Homer’s tale “The Odyssey.” Mentorwas the trusted advisor of Odysseus, the king of Ithica, andMentorwent on to counsel Odysseus’ son Telemachus in battle.  I’ve always appreciated this “warrior” element to the origins of mentoring, and I find it especially applicable in the law enforcement profession.  After all, ultimately a good police mentor can mean the difference between life and death for the mentee.  Being an effective, selfless mentor and trainer is part of our warrior’s creed.

How do you begin as a mentor?  Start by look in the mirror.  Do you look, act and think like someone others would want to emulate and learn from?  For those of you who went from patrol officer to field training officer, the process is similar.  Truly examine the way you conduct day to day business, regardless of your assignment.  We tend to get de-trained by routine, and deciding to become a mentor is a great way to take stock of yourself and get your own house in order before you start trying to influence someone else.  Set your ego aside and take a good look at yourself and make sure you like what you see, because that’s who your mentee is going to try to become if you’re successful as her mentor.

What are your motivations for mentoring?  It would be nice to say that we all want to motivate and help others in our profession because we’re just good people, but it’s probably not realistic for everyone.  Some mentors really are well-motivated “I want to give back” type of folks, but there are other reasons for mentoring.  Perhaps you want to show your command staff (and yourself) that you’re ready to be an FTO, a supervisor or a manager.  Maybe you’re a little frustrated with potential mentees and you’re hoping to influence them for the good of the team or the organization.  Whatever your motives, just make sure they’re good ones.  Don’t try and mentor people just to increase your own power base or stroke your own ego.  Mentoring is serious business, be honest about your motives. 

So how do you begin to mentor someone, much less someone you’re not particularly fond of?  I talk to thousands of women in law enforcement every year and this is one of the hottest topics for class discussion.  There is so much division between older and younger, patrol and investigations, supervision and line level, sworn and civilian and the list goes on.  Because we’re in a male-dominated atmosphere, women often judge each other’s choices, lifestyles, performance and even appearance much too harshly.    

Start by finding common ground.  If you have 20 years on the job and your department hires a new rookie who is everything you don’t like, look for something you might have in common.  Remember what it was like to be the new kid in town.  Initiate a conversation about the academy, shift work, firearms, fitness, whatever.  Keep the conversation positive and professional, this is not the time to bond over bitching about the administration.  This is also not the time to tell the new rookie that you don’t like her hair, her work ethic, her attitude, or her loose morals.  Your goal is to inspire her to be better, not to tear her down or give her a piece of your mind.

“But these new kids don’t want to take our advice!”  Yes, I know.  I hear it all the time, and I experience it personally too.  It’s frustrating to try and mentor someone who doesn’t think they need any advice or support, or asks for your advice and then doesn’t take it.  Don’t give up, and don’t confuse “mentoring” with “friendship.”  You want to be a role model to your mentee, not necessarily her BFF.  Part of being a good mentor is working on making yourself better too, and that includes practicing patience, tolerance, and good communication shills.  Remember, if you’re trying to mentor someone who clearly needs help but isn’t open to receiving it, chances are no one else is going to help her either.  You may be all she’s got. 

Having said that, being a mentor doesn’t mean that you have to be totally selfless, or blind.  If your mentee is engaged in flagrant policy violations or misconduct, don’t allow yourself to be dragged into the mud with her.  That’s why I recommend holding off on becoming too friendly too soon.  If you do have to disengage, it’s easier on both of you if you’ve kept the relationship a professional one. 

Mentoring is a balancing act, it takes a certain amount of bravery to reach out, and it should ultimately benefit both parties.  I know so many talented women who refuse to take a risk and reach out to some of their co-workers because they see it as a waste of time.  Don’t be one of those women (or men, for that matter) who stays in their own little circle of comfort.  There are some terrific young people entering our profession, and there are also many “diamonds in the rough” already in our organizations that might learn, grow and thrive because of someone like you.