Mentoring programs are a win-win

by Ruben Pola

Mentoring can be defined as a mutually beneficial relationship in which a knowledgeable and skilled veteran officer provides insight, guidance and developmental opportunities to a lesser skilled and experienced colleague (protégé).1

The concept of mentoring can trace its roots to ancient Greek mythology. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, departs to fight in the Trojan War, leaving his son Telemachus in the care of his most trusted adviser, named Mentor. It was Mentor’s job to show Telemachus the ways of being a king and to act as his formal adviser. This was a common theme in Greek society, as craftsmen would often take on young males as apprentices and act as their mentors. Later, during the Middle Ages, this practice became more structured as master craftsmen (bootmakers, carpenters, etc.) formed guilds and began formal apprenticeships. On their way to becoming a master, these journeymen learned their trade(s) and eventually took over the business when the old master retired. Indeed, the root meaning of the word “masterpiece” literally signifies a custom “piece” made by the “master.”

Ever since Sir Robert Peel formed the world’s first modern police force in 1829, the practice of informal mentoring has always been present in the profession. Older, more experienced officers have always been asked to show younger, less experienced officers the ropes. Officers can count themselves lucky if they have been fortunate to have someone take an interest in their career beyond their initial training, whether called a “rabbi” (East Coast term) or a mentor. Why some officers receive informal mentoring and others do not is a complex question for another time. Needless to say, having some type of formal mentoring is often the difference between success and a bumpy career.

Unfortunately, agencies often rely on FTO programs to provide some semblance of the mentoring process. In practice, this does not often work. An FTO program is primarily focused on the training and evaluation of newly graduated academy attendees or lateral officers. It is unrealistic for an FTO to establish a true mentoring relationship if the new hire (protégé) knows what is shared in confidence can be later cited in an evaluation. Where an FTO program leaves off, a formal mentor program has the potential to bridge the gap in fostering a productive relationship.

At the Hayward Police Department in California, our mentors act as a source for information on the mission and goals of our Department. Mentors provide insight into our culture and a roadmap for professional growth and success. They tutor specific skills, illustrate effective behaviors and show how to function in our organization. They provide feedback on observed behavior and provide coaching on skill development. Most importantly, mentors serve as a confidant in times of personal difficulties by acting as a safe port in the storm. Mentors are expected to keep shared information confidential with only two exceptions: violations of departmental policy or criminal violations.

As agencies seek to create succession plans, formalized mentoring programs provide one way to ensure sustained growth and success. Formal mentoring programs pull double duty in both identifying future leaders in the organization, as well as re-energizing senior employees. The process of mentoring gives senior employees the chance to leave behind a legacy as well as an outlet to pass on their knowledge by “giving something back.”

The components of our mentor programs are quite simple, consisting of trained mentors representing both sworn and professional staff. Employees volunteer or are recruited by the mentor coordinator who oversees the program. The interview process is informal, and after being vetted by peers and supervisors, names are submitted to our command staff for approval.

Training for newly selected mentors consists of eight hours of classroom instruction and role playing. Varied scenarios provide would-be mentors with real-world situations and provide tools necessary to establish boundaries and provide resources. Once training is complete, mentors are paired with newly hired employees called protégés. Responsibilities of all facets of the program are outlined in our mentor policy. It is recommended that protégés and mentors have some type of contact at least two times per month. These contacts can be as simple as a phone call or even meeting off-site for coffee.

In addition, there have been unintended benefits attributed to the mentor program. Foremost among them is the early warning detection system the mentor relationship produces. Normally unreported instances of inappropriate behavior have been identified and quickly dealt with as a result of this avenue of reporting. As a result, new employees have embraced our organization for its integrity instead of wanting to leave and go elsewhere.

After the first several years, we tested the success of our mentor program by polling our protégés to determine effectiveness. There was a unanimous sentiment from protégés that they were better off from having been assigned a mentor.

In all, our mentor program provides tangible organizational advantages, allowing all newly hired employees the direct benefit of having an assigned mentor. Designed to help assimilate new employees into our organization, the program reduces anxiety by actively socializing newly hired employees into our organization. The program is cost-effective, since mentors carry out their coaching responsibilities in addition to their regular duty assignments. Because of the high cost of recruitment, coupled with a small candidate pool, a formal mentor program is appealing to potential employees. More importantly, mentoring instills the belief that the department cares about its employees. Legacy building and the ability to share one’s experience has revitalized more senior employees. Lastly, mentors can earn extra points during promotional processes, as well as have their yearly evaluations reflect their activities. While our work at improving our mentor program is ongoing, we have been fortunate to reap the benefits of having this program in place.


Sergeant Ruben Pola has over 29 years of experience and is currently employed as a shift supervisor with the Hayward Police Department. For further information on mentoring, he can be reached at ruben.pola@hayward-ca.gov.


Footnotes

  1. April H. Kranda and Harvey Sprafka, Best Practices Guide for Institutionalizing Mentoring Into Police Departments (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2000), www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2018-08/BP-Mentoring.pdf.

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