Airmen are just like new cars

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCORD, Wash -- I've been fortunate enough to have some really great mentors over the course of my career. One mentor, whom I'll never forget, really had a way of taking complicated philosophy and breaking it down so that even I could understand it.

I remember one particular late afternoon mentoring session back when I was a young flight chief. The topic centered on being a good supervisor. At some point during the discussion I queried, "What's with today's Airmen?"
 
I'll never forget what my mentor said to me. He leaned back in his chair, pondered just a little and said, "Sergeant Drake, today's Airmen are amazing, but you know, they're really just like new cars. And how they perform really has a lot to do with their supervisors, or in the case of the new car, its owner."

I had no idea what he was talking about but I quickly realized that I was not going to make it home in time for dinner that night.

"New cars are awesome," he continued. "They look good, they have the most modern styling and everything works. Of course there may or may not be a few bugs to work out, but for the most part, they run perfectly. They just make you feel good."

"Strange," I thought. "Where is he going with this?"

He continued, "But new cars, just like new Airmen, require some basic care and periodic maintenance to keep them running like new and ensure years of trouble free driving. It's right there in the owner's manual. There's stuff you must pay attention to almost on a daily basis, like fuel quantity, fluid levels and tire inflation. Other things, like brake wear, tire rotation and oil changes are less frequent, but must be addressed to prevent major issues down the road. Can you see how this is much like a Supervisor providing an Airman with good training, face to face feedback and occasional correction or redirection? Most of this minor maintenance can be done yourself, right in your own garage, driveway, or work center in the case of the supervisor. Can ya smell what I'm cookin' Sergeant Drake?"

This is starting to make sense, I thought to myself.

"Of course there's some major scheduled maintenance down the road to be planned for as well," he continued. "Timing belts need to be replaced, transmissions and cooling systems need to be flushed and serviced, and suspension components need to be inspected or replaced as required. Those big jobs are better left to the professionals, as you probably don't have the tools or training to tackle them yourself."

He paused for a minute and I jumped in. "I get it," I exclaimed. "It's kind of like career development courses and professional military education."

"Exactly," he said. "Some people take it a step further and make performance upgrades to their new cars to make them perform even better. Upgraded suspension components can make them handle better; engine modifications and upgraded brakes will make them accelerate and stop faster. Can you see how this might be similar with an Airman?"

"Aha!" I said. "It's like encouraging an Airman to get a college degree and participate in intense physical training, or providing additional mentorship, like what you're doing here with me right now."

"Yup," he nodded. "You're starting to get it."

"Now, consider what happens when the periodic or scheduled maintenance gets missed, or that mentorship never happens. Eventually the performance of that shiny new car, or that promising young Airman, will decline until it breaks down completely, or until you're looking to trade it in on a new model just four years down the road."

Well I didn't make it home in time for dinner that night but my wonderful wife understood, and it was certainly a small price to pay for such words of wisdom. This simple discussion with my supervisor and mentor completely changed my outlook on today's Airman and how I viewed my roles and responsibilities as a supervisor.

Now that I think about it, that was about the point in my life when I purchased my old truck. Thanks to strict periodic maintenance, a couple of performance modifications along the way and a string of outstanding supervisors, that old vehicle, and this old Airman, are both still running strong.