Year in and year out field training sergeants and coordinators conduct hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews with hopeful and eager officers testing to become their department’s next field training officer. This selection process is crucial for every agency as the appointment of a future FTO is critical.
The training, culture, and future of the department rest on the trainers’ shoulders. We ask young FTOs to be expert in law and policy. We also expect them to act as first-line supervisors as they evaluate performance and document their observations. Additionally, we want every FTO to understand how important the job of developing a young officer is to the agency. The guidance and direction the student officer receives from their FTO can last a lifetime.
In short, we expect our FTOs to be mentors.
During those thousands of interviews we spoke of above, our excited FTO applicants use that word to describe themselves time and again. “I want to be a mentor.” “I have been a mentor.” “One of the most important roles of the FTO is that of a mentor.” The command level officers sitting on that board will hear those statements numerous times from each applicant.
But, our applicants may have little training or exposure to proper mentors. We have to ask ourselves a few foundational questions. Do FTOs know what it means to be a mentor? What does a mentor look like? How do mentors behave? What motivates a mentor?
What a Mentor Is
I believe that there are three aspects to a good mentor. Our FTOs should share these beliefs to increase their effectiveness as a mentor.
No. 1: Attitude is everything. “Success first” should be the prevailing attitude of each and every FTO in the country. Our training systems should be designed to successfully develop and graduate capable young officers. The FTO who wants to make the greatest impact as a mentor begins with this in mind.
The success of the student officer is a shared goal. The attitude of the FTO is that of success and optimism. The mentor dedicates himself and all his effort to progress and victory. Mistakes in the field are not failures, but teaching opportunities. Performance and behavior change are victories celebrated between both student and teacher. Mentor FTOs are not just cheerleaders but trusted coaches that give honest guidance, direction, and feedback. The law enforcement officer has to be the biggest fan of other law enforcement officers.
Bottom line: Training with ridicule and contempt does not build trust between the FTO and the officer in training. A trainee must feel the ability to be vulnerable around their trainer. Only through feeling vulnerable can we build trust. And only through trust will the trainee feel empowered to take action and to take on new challenges.
No. 2: It’s not about you. The goal of any FTO is not to create another “you” but to create a new “them.” The field training officer’s investment in their OIT is not measured in what it yields in return to the FTO but in what it creates for the new police officer.
As trainers, we don’t want to focus on what we can do but what our officers in training can do. The goal is helping them fulfill potential and gain confidence in doing things and performing in manners they never thought they could accomplish. The dividends for your investment are not paid back to you but to the trainee.
Sure, the moment in time when the OIT realizes that the arrest they just made or their first foot pursuit was “really cool” feels good to you. But, what makes you feel good about your training is also building hope and confidence in a new officer.
Bottom Line: The delight doesn’t come from your ability to teach them, it comes from their ability to learn from you. The career-changing experiences and training that you offer them will be used as a foundation to build upon over their 25-year career. There is no room for pride in mentoring. Humility is key.
No. 3: It’s their choice to make. A close friend and trusted colleague of mine in the world of field training has always said that being a mentor means the FTO maintains an active interest in the OIT after graduation from the program. The FTO mentor willingly and eagerly keeps in touch and continues to offer guidance and direction.
I believe that my old friend is only half right. The mentor FTO needs to be interested in the trainee. But the choice to receive you as a mentor is entirely up to the student. The new officer will decide to accept you as their mentor based on their experience with you during their training. Did the student officer believe that their success was in the forefront of your mind? Is your approach to training, mentoring, and leading people authentic? Through your training and guidance, did you build a relationship of trust with the OIT?
Bottom Line: If the student officer feels that their relationship with you was exclusively a student/teacher relationship, they may not accept your mentorship. If the student officer believes that your approach to training was to chastise or ridicule, they may not trust you to be their mentor. So, mentoring doesn’t begin after their graduation to solo duty. Mentorship starts the minute they enter your program.
Scott Williams is the founder and CEO of NXTLevel Solutions. Williams is a speaker and author on matters of leadership in the private sector. He was also one of the youngest prison wardens in the country at the age of 25. During one of his presentations on leadership, Williams asks the attendees a great question that every FTO mentor should ask themselves: “If my position, title, role, or formal authority were removed, would the people that I’m leading still gladly follow me?”
If you were no longer an FTO, would that student officer get back in that car with you tomorrow and follow your guidance? If the answer is yes, then you have likely built that trusting relationship a mentor needs to be impactful.