By Phil Berube, Air University Public Affairs
/ Published November 14, 2019
Major Johann Pambianchi (left), B-20 Flight commander, 31st Student Squadron, Squadron Officer School, introduces Lt. Col. Duane Richardson as the flight’s senior mentor, Nov. 13, 2019. Richardson is an instructor for the Leader Development Course for Squadron Command at the Ira C. Eaker Center for Leadership Development. He and more than three dozen other senior leaders from across Air University and Maxwell volunteer their time to take part in SOS’s Senior Mentor Program, engaging with students multiple times throughout the 6.5-week school. (Courtesy photo)
Squadron Officer School is tapping into the rich and deep pool of experience around the Air University campus to enhance the leadership education and personal growth of the next generation of leaders.
What was up until recently an academic requirement giving senior leaders less than two hours to share with students their perspectives on decades of experiences and lessons learned has transitioned into the full-fledged Senior Mentor Program, connecting students and mentors multiple times throughout the 6.5-week school.
The school has the capacity for about 700 captains and civilians per class, and the class is broken down into four squadrons, with about 10 to 13 flights per squadron. Under the new mentor program’s construct, each flight is paired with a volunteer senior mentor, typically in the rank of lieutenant colonel, colonel or civilian equivalent, from across Air University, 42nd Air Base Wing and other academic and operational organizations at Maxwell.
The mentors are asked to dedicate as much time as their and their paired flight’s schedules allow to engage with the students, which has been averaging nearly five hours each class. The time mentors spend with the students is much more than the previous 1.5-hour academic requirement tagged on to the end of the each class right before graduation.
“SOS students and senior mentors have both benefited from a prolonged relationship during and across several classes now, allowing for more discussions and better mentor-class relationships,” said Maj. Johann Pambianchi, B-20 Flight commander, 31st Student Squadron, and co-lead for the mentorship program.
During their time with students, mentors are encouraged to offer their perspectives and lessons learned on a specific topic being covered in the classroom, whether about leadership, ethics, personnel processes and issues, management functions. They’re free, however, to also delve into subjects not centered on a specific lesson’s objective.
“We have used a combination of both bringing in my flight’s senior mentor for specific lessons and bringing him in when our schedules align,” said Maj. Jannel Black, F-71 Flight commander, 33rd Student Squadron. “Because we have hosted multiple sessions with him, the flight talks more openly and is willing to ask specific, and often challenging, questions, knowing he’s a straight shooter and will provide them an honest answer.”
Honest answers and free and open discussions are key to making the program succeed, as is a willingness by both mentors and students to learn from each other.
One graduated SOS student said that while she appreciated and gained valuable insights from her flight’s mentor, she also would like mentors, as senior leaders, to remain open to gaining new perspectives on “communication and resiliency.” She and her peers, she said, are growing up in an Air Force that is increasingly constrained by resources and are being asked to come up with innovative solutions to address some of those constraints.
“Young officers are being taught to test the status quo and be creative in order to do more with less,” said Capt. Allison Anderson, the military personnel flight commander at Aviano Air Base, Italy. “Therefore, we will get intensely frustrated if we are met with resistance at the top for new, perhaps risky, ideas. It is up to senior leaders to be courageous enough to take those risks in order to foster innovation.”
Anderson’s expectations are not lost on one senior mentor. Additionally, he believes it’s critical that senior leaders seek to be mentors to junior officers.
“I feel the best benefit for the senior mentor is staying connected to the tremendous captains that we have, who are feeling the brunt of the Air Force’s operations tempo, balancing being tactical experts while entering into the rigor of flight command,” said. Lt. Col. Nate McClure, an instructor for the Leader Development Course for Squadron Command at the Ira C. Eaker Center for Leadership Development. “In addition, these captains are often the ones with recent marriages and young children; how they are taken care of during this critical time sends them on a path of staying with the Air Force or leaving, if we don’t value them.”
SOS faculty say that based on the feedback they’ve been receiving, the program has proven valuable for both students and mentors.
Of equal value is the effect the program is having in advancing the objectives of one of the Air Force chief of staff’s strategic focus areas: revitalizing squadrons and strengthening squadron leadership teams.
“The initiative enables a symbiotic relationship between two distinct generations of officers, a relationship in which each side benefits,” said. Lt. Col. Jon Slaughter, commander, 31st Student Squadron, and who oversees the program. “The senior mentors are offered perspectives that will help them be better group and wing commanders, and the mentorship provided to the captain and civilian students helps them be better leaders at the squadron level.”