Mentoring young fed workers

November 1, 2013
A worker cleans a fossil at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images
A worker cleans a fossil at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

Keeping young federal employees motivated and providing them with on-the-job guidance and professional development advice is always a good idea, but it may be particularly important in the aftermath of the government shutdown, when many in the workforce may be having second thoughts about their career choice.

One way to engage and help young feds is through use of mentoring programs, a process of matching junior employees with experienced professionals outside their chain of supervision.

For the employees, a good mentor can give trusted advice, provide new ideas and advocate on their behalf. Mentors also can be a guide to help employees resolve workplace challenges and navigate the organizational culture.

For managers, the benefits also are numerous. Mentoring enables experienced staff to pass their knowledge to those who are early in the careers, and potentially make them more effective and productive employees. Mentoring also is a tangible way to show employees that they are valued, and that they have opportunities to make a significant contribution to the organization. This process can help retain talented employees, many of whom may be adrift in the federal system without a guiding hand.

In addition, mentors can improve their management, coaching and listening skills, gain a better understanding of the problems confronting less experienced workers and increase their own job satisfaction.

In his book “Executive Coaching for Managerial Excellence: A roadmap for executives, human resources and coaches,” Michael Brenner identifies a number of principles that are common to successful mentoring engagements.

These include having the mentor and protégé fully committed to the engagement, establishing trust, engaging in candid problem-solving and identifying career goals and development opportunities.

Brenner also suggests that the mentor and protégé work together to develop an action plan to achieve those development goals. At the same time, he recommends that mentors be constructive in their feedback and honest about employee missteps.

While such programs can be informal, it may be more effective to institutionalize the process. This will require senior leadership support and commitment. It also will require managers to make the business case for why such a program is needed and to detail the goals and benefits, as well a to explain how the program will work, how mentors and their protégés will be chosen and the obligations that each will assume.

Successful mentoring programs currently exist in many parts of the federal government, including at the State Department, the Department of Energy, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The State Department, for example, runs a Civil Service Mentoring Program that matches employees with experienced profes­sionals to help them develop and pre­pare for career opportuni­ties. The other goals of the program are to improve morale, organizational communication, succession planning, diver­sity and retention.

The program runs for nine months and informational meetings are held for all employees, including potential men­tors, to learn about the program. A mentoring agreement lays out roles, expectations and logistics, and calls for regularly scheduled meetings between mentors and their protégés. In addition, action plans are created that focus on three developmental needs of the employee, and the support and resources required to do so. At the conclusion of the program, the State Department encourages the mentors and protégés to continue their relationship.

Creating mentoring programs requires time and commitment from agency leaders and managers, but, if done properly, can provide significant benefits. Please share your experiences with agency mentoring programs in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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