Given that many who currently lead EMS systems will retire in the coming decade, the need to mentor others is at an all-time high.
“What do you look for in a mentor?” That’s a question we’ve consistently asked participants in the Ambulance Service Manager (ASM) program in recent years. The most common answers are: humility, trustworthiness, a servant’s heart, a deep understanding of human nature and leadership and excellent communication skills. The responses imply that mentoring isn’t about what you know, but what kind of person you are.
Jim Page once told me, “Leadership is a character building profession.” The challenge for us, of course, is that neither the character of a leader nor their skills are developed in isolation. They can’t be learned solely by reading books, attending conferences or surfing Web sites. Rather, they must be learned through relationships.
The most important aspects of leadership must be learned and passed on in close quarters through mentoring relationships. Drawing on the insights of ASM instructor David Nelson, we must equip and encourage experienced EMS leaders to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. It’s the best way to build up tomorrow’s leaders today. Learning to communicate directly is one of the core competencies every leader must develop.
Communication Rules of the Road
When I assumed an early leadership role in St. Louis, a number of the staff had children older than I was. At age 24, I was their director. That was intimidating. A mentor told me to develop some rules of the road for communicating with the staff. How would I get people to talk with me rather than among themselves?
The list I drew up evolved into 10 principles that guided the way we communicated and, ultimately, the way we dealt with one another. The “rules” helped me mentor others to grow their own leadership skills.
Rummaging through my desk the other day, I ran across the list. It’s as relevant today as it was then. Reviewing the principles proved helpful, as my daily use of them can always stand to be refreshed:
1. If you have a problem with me, come to me (privately).
2. If I have a problem with you, I’ll come to you (privately).
3. If someone has a problem with me and comes to you, send them to me. I will do the same for you.
4. If someone consistently will not come to me, say, “Let’s go to the boss together. I am sure he will see us about this.” I will do the same for you.
5. Be careful how you interpret me—I’d rather do that. On matters that are unclear, do not feel pressured to interpret my feelings or thoughts. It is easy to misinterpret intentions.
6. I will be careful how I interpret you. I won’t make assumptions about your feelings or thoughts but will trust in your positive intent.
7. If it’s confidential, don’t tell. (This, especially, applies to our supervisor meetings.) If you or anyone else comes to me in confidence and indicates that the matter we are discussing is confidential, I won’t discuss it with anyone, unless a) someone may harm himself/herself; b) someone may physically harm someone else; or c) a crime has been committed. I expect the same from you.
8. I do not act on innuendo, unsigned letters or notes.
9. I do not manipulate; I will not be manipulated; do not let others manipulate you. Do not let others try to manipulate me through you. I will not preach “at” you as a leader and will do my very best to “walk the talk.”
10. When in doubt, just ask. The only dumb questions are those that are never asked. We are a professional family here and we care about each other, so if you have a concern, speak up. If I can answer it without misrepresenting something or breaking a confidence, I will.
Although these principles didn’t eliminate every problem, they provide a strong foundation for direct communication and mentorship.
Recently, two individuals asked a longtime co-worker to “tell the boss” about an idea that was not working. At first, the person agreed to speak with me. Then, she called the two individuals back and said, “I’ve thought about what you asked me to do. I know that the boss would appreciate it if you told him yourself. He always wants to hear what people think. If he does not respond, then call me, and we will talk to him together.”
That afternoon, the staff members came to see me, and we worked through their issue. I didn’t know about their request of the person who sent them to me.
“I’m so glad you came to me personally,” I closed our conversation. “We need to communicate openly and honestly, even about difficult matters.” Later, when I learned the rest of the story, I knew that adherence to our communication rules had given the other person an opportunity to communicate her confidence in me. And I was allowed to cement two other relationships that might have presented roadblocks later on.
Are you mentoring your next generation of leaders? Here are four questions you can use to begin thinking about your mentoring relationships.
1. Do I spend time with my staff, building positive interpersonal relationships?
2. Are others being encouraged as leaders not only by what I say but also by how I say it?
3. Am I planting ideas and opportunities for leadership among the staff, allowing those seeds to grow naturally?
4. Am I communicating with others in a manner that encourages greater communication and builds trust?
Mahatma Gandhi was a great change leader and mentor. He summarized it best by saying, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”