Eric Jackson doesn’t consider mentoring a collateral duty. To him, it’s something he does every day for all the people who work with him. He just calls it leading by example.
It’s also something at which he excels, and his commitment to developing the skills and capabilities of his team earned Jackson the title of Fleet Readiness Center East Mentor of the Year. Naval Air Systems Command leadership recognized Jackson and other NAVAIR Mentors of the Year during a virtual celebration of National Mentoring Month held Jan. 26.
Jackson, the maintenance logistics lead with the H-1 Fleet Support Team at NAVAIR’s In-Service Support Center at FRCE, said he doesn’t have any formal mentoring relationships; his people-first style extends to everyone in his orbit, and yields positive results for both the individuals and the organization.
“It’s just the way I lead,” he said. “I call it taking care of your people, and I believe if you take care of your people, they will take care of the work. When they’re happy, they do what they know needs to be done.”
Jackson’s desire to take care of people comes as a result of the people who have helped him.
“There are those lightbulb moments you have, when people take an interest in you. They get you out of situations that you’re in – that maybe you got yourself into – and they try to explain to you why you got there and how to fix it,” he said. “I woke up one day, and I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I decided that was the kind of leader I wanted to be: someone who took care of not just the job, but the people.”
According to Jackson, the key to taking care of people is ensuring they know three things: what’s going on in the organization, what they need to do to be successful in the organization, and whether or not they’re a good fit for the organization. With those building blocks in place, success follows.
“Those things add up to provide a better employee for the organization, and help both the individual and organization achieve their goals,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Jackson said he roots his mentorship philosophy – although he wouldn’t call it that – in the idea that every challenge presents a learning opportunity. When someone comes to him with an issue, he encourages them to work through it and find the best solution they can. If that option doesn’t provide the best possible outcome, Jackson uses the opportunity to show them ways to improve their process.
“The goal, the desired outcome, is to coach people,” he said. “The results are important, but it’s also important to know how you got to those results, how you examined your options and asked yourself about potential pitfalls.
“I don’t like to actually go up to someone and say that decision wasn’t the best,” Jackson continued. “I like to talk them through it, and get them to realize that there are always options.”
This focus on learning makes Jackson’s mentorship especially empowering for those he works with, said Jackson’s supervisor Mike Durbin, the H-1 FST logistics lead.
“Eric provides empowerment but does not abandon people; he gives direction but does not direct how an action is to be done,” Durbin explained. “That said, he is there for them when they need guidance or assistance. He enables people to learn on their own and make decisions, yet he is always there to provide encouragement and support.”
Jackson provides that encouragement and support in an approachable manner, which makes it easy for more junior team members to speak to him, said Allison Hinnant, a logistics management specialist with the H-1 FST. Hinnant has maintained an informal mentee relationship with Jackson for several years, although Jackson initially intimidated her with his wealth of knowledge. Their relationship developed organically as Hinnant realized Jackson was so welcoming.
“The more time you spend with Eric, the more comfortable you get with him. Almost right off the bat, he puts you at ease,” Hinnant said. “I’ve never seen him get flustered, or overly excited; he just handles everything as it comes and that puts you at ease, as well, knowing that maybe you made a mistake but there are ways that you can correct it, and learn from it and move forward.
“Eric has never talked down to anybody, or said an angry word toward anybody,” she continued. “He has that overwhelming sense of calm for everybody, which I greatly appreciate. We work in a very fast-paced environment, and it’s so easy to get flustered or get your feelings hurt when the project doesn’t go the right way. But Eric always has these words of wisdom.”
That exceedingly calm demeanor didn’t come naturally, Jackson noted – it’s something he has worked to develop over the years. He said when people find out he retired from the Marine Corps before entering civil service, they’re often surprised.
“Most people think of Marine leaders and they think of the guy in the movies, the drill instructor who’s screaming and yelling,” he said. “But I’ve found that’s the worst possible way to get things done. As soon as I start screaming, you’re going to stop listening. Coaching and constant training are much more effective.”
Jackson said as a young man, before he joined the Marine Corps, he possessed an extremely volatile temperament. Learning to control his temper proved essential to moving forward in both his life and career.
“The first thing I had to learn was how to control myself,” he remembered. “As I look back, I realize I had a lot of people who mentored me along the way, although I didn’t realize then that it was mentoring. They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and they coached me along the way. People helped train me to become a leader, and they drove my attitude and my style into being someone who can be approached and discuss issues on an even temper.
“I still work on that today, but it’s important,” Jackson continued. “I learned early on that it’s important that you be approachable and have a willingness to help others, and to allow others to help you, to get people to come and talk to you. You’ve got to be someone people want to talk to, because you can give anybody advice – but advice that’s not sought from a respected source falls on deaf ears.”
This approachable attitude means Jackson’s teammates feel they can come to him with any questions, Hinnant said. Those questions can be task-related, or about leadership or personnel issues, and Jackson always addresses them with good advice.
“He’s come to expect off-the-wall questions, and there are no off-limits questions when it comes to work,” she said. “I keep him on his toes, probably more than he would like me to, but I’ve never left a meeting with him and felt like he didn’t address a concern. He’s been the go-to for me on leadership and supervisory matters, as well as being a better logistician. He just covers all the bases.”
Jackson is armed with answers to those questions, or can provide the resources to find them, thanks to his long and distinguished career. He spent 20 years in the Marine Corps and almost 10 years as a contractor before moving into civil service 20 years ago.
“Eric’s technical and professional experience spans decades, including his military time,” Durbin said. “He shares his sage wisdom that can only be learned over time and through experience with his people, and they are able to leverage, retain and use it much earlier in their careers. His dedication and professionalism in his service and his relationship with others, both senior and junior, are recognized and commendable.”
Despite his vast repository of institutional knowledge, Jackson said he learns new things every day – many of them from the younger team members he mentors. The generational divide is apparent, he said, but also potential source of learning.
“I’m at that age now where I used to say, ‘Wow, that guy’s ancient,’” Jackson joked. “Well, now I’m beyond ancient, but I have people who work with me that are younger than my youngest child and, in some cases, I have grandchildren who are older than they are. But it can’t be a grandpa kind of relationship; these people are adults. They’re professionals, and that’s the way they have to be treated.
“Every day, they teach me new things about the differences in the way someone my age thinks, and the way someone their age thinks about the exact same issue,” he continued. “You have to understand that their route to their decisions is based on their outlook on life, so it’s important for me to understand that outlook. And they’re teaching me how to think like they do, or at least to understand how they think.”
Knowledge of how the newer generation of logisticians thinks helps Jackson better resolve future situations, he said. He can steer his approach to improve his response because, through it all, the idea of “taking care of your people” remains Jackson’s guiding principle.
“That’s not only in their professional life; you’ve got to be concerned about their personal life, too,” he said. “Take care of them. If they have issues they need help with, be someone they can talk to. It shouldn’t matter what the issue is, be it personal or professional – just be someone they can talk to. Do that, and I think you wind up with a better employee.”
Hinnant said, in her experience, Jackson walks the walk.
“I wouldn’t be in the spot that I’m in right now without the help of my coworkers, my mentors and Eric,” she added. “He gives advice that maybe you don’t necessarily want to hear, but you need to hear, and he does it in such a good way. The biggest benefit of having him as a mentor has been learning how to be a better supervisor and, honestly, a better person.”
FRCE is North Carolina's largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot generates combat air power for America’s Marines and naval forces while serving as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.