Learning on the job: How to make the most of mentoring

Priscilla Guthrie is not the kind of person you would expect to seek out a mentor.

The former CIO for the Intelligence Community at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a high-level Defense Department official for years before that is someone others might turn to for guidance.

All the same, Guthrie has a group of mentors whom she informally calls her board of directors.

They are the go-to people she has stayed in contact with throughout her long career. To create balance, she typically includes a senior-level leader from her current organization, a peer in her field, a subject-matter expert and someone from her personal life.

Although she doesn’t speak to her board members all that frequently these days, they still function as an easily accessible advice network, Guthrie said.

Successful federal leaders often credit mentors with helping them advance in their careers. Those advisers devote time to showing newer federal employees the ropes and sharing their expertise.

A mentoring relationship for younger or less experienced feds gives them the chance to fine-tune skills and learn aspects of a job that aren’t covered in the employee manual.

"Mentoring is invaluable," said Tom Fox, vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. "It's executive coaching on what the real-world application looks like."

Former and current government officials agree that mentoring is a vital but significantly underused tool.

For one thing, mentoring can be time-intensive, and feds — like most professionals — are busy people. In addition, there are no short-cuts to developing a strong connection between a mentor and a mentee. Furthermore, some people are reluctant to ask someone they admire to be a mentor out of fear of rejection.

So over time, mentoring has become an overlooked option for professional development.

“Some of the opportunities to learn your craft aren’t as easy anymore,” Guthrie said. “Mentoring is almost an alternative way to work next to someone who knows something you want to know.”

Although some sources say mentoring is a labor of love that cannot be reduced to a science, experts offer a handful of guidelines to help mentors and mentees make the most of the relationship.

Defining your objectives

The first step is to recognize the value of mentoring, which can be difficult for some people.

Most federal employees won’t seek a mentor on their own. They might not even know it’s an option. That’s where federal managers come in. They can help employees understand the value of mentoring and how to set the process in motion.

However, the ultimate success of the relationship depends on getting the employee fully engaged.

Mentoring is a learning relationship, which means that a potential mentee must identify what he or she hopes to gain from the experience, said Lois Zachary, a mentoring expert and president of Leadership Development Services.

She advised mentees to list what they want to get out of a mentoring relationship.

“You need to carefully clarify what it is that you need because you don’t want to rely on chemistry,” Zachary said. “If you use criteria, you make a better decision.”

Similarly, Dave Uejio, president of Young Government Leaders, said feds must know what skills or competency they want to strengthen through mentoring.

For instance, does a mentee want to learn about technical skills, leadership skills or emotional intelligence, which is more internally focused on issues such as organizational skills and workflow?

“We place a lot of responsibility on the mentee,” said Uejio, who is special assistant to the director for human resources at the National Institutes of Health. “If you’re directionless, you’re not a good candidate for a mentoring relationship.”

As for what is expected of mentors, Uejio said young feds are looking for information about organizational culture and specific aspects of their jobs.

Once a mentee has a list of criteria and clear objectives, he or she must look for an appropriate mentor.

A formal mentoring program at the mentee’s agency is a great way to go about finding a match. If such a program doesn’t exist, federal managers can take it upon themselves to help pair people together.

Sources said formal and informal mentoring can be equally effective. Although formal programs can ease concerns and provide a structured environment, informal mentoring relationships can be powerful because they arise naturally. Feds might also choose to take advantage of both types of opportunities.

Finding the right mentor in a sea of qualified contenders can be challenging, but there are ways to narrow the field.

Picking a mentor: What to look for 

So how does one find the perfect mentor?

One easy first step feds can take is to determine whether they already have a mentor, said Fox, who writes “The Federal Coach” blog for the Washington Post. If there isn’t anyone fulfilling that need, the next best step is to look around their office or within their team and choose someone they admire, he added. A manager can assist with making that connection.

Another thing feds can do is mine their network of contacts to find potential mentors. “Use your network to reach out.… Make yourself likeable, enthusiastic and interesting,” Zachary said. “The important thing to ask yourself is if this person is going to challenge you to raise the bar.”

Whether you’re the mentee or a federal manager who wants to foster relationships between newer and more experienced employees, you should ask yourself if a potential mentor is willing to deliver honest feedback, has the time to participate in a learning relationship and, perhaps most importantly, has a personality that is compatible with the mentee’s, experts say.

Guthrie, who is a longtime mentor as well as a mentee, said she believes the best mentors are people who are comfortable with themselves and can enjoy other people’s success. “You don’t want someone who is competitive with you,” she said.

Molly O’Neill, vice president of the CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government and former CIO at the Environmental Protection Agency, said the good news for IT employees looking for mentors is that the federal IT space is a close, networked community.

Choosing a mentor is only part of the process. A mentee also has to ask the person for his or her advice and time. That can difficult for some people.

To make it less intimidating, the mentee might first ask a potential mentor to join him or her for a cup of coffee, Fox said. Formally asking someone to be a mentor can be uncomfortable for both parties. An invitation to meet over coffee, on the other hand, is friendly and low-key and gives the mentee and mentor an opportunity to see whether the relationship will work.

Once the match has been made, it’s up to the two people involved to prepare for that first important meeting. As with most aspects of a mentoring relationship, most of the onus falls on the mentee.

Setting the agenda and ground rules

The quickest way to sabotage a mentoring relationship is to inadequately prepare for that first meeting.

Uejio said mentees should think about what they want to get out of the relationship for at least as long as the meeting will last. Otherwise, the appointment will turn into a less productive venting or counseling session.

Mentees should always have an agenda for their meetings with mentors. It’s best if the conversation’s purpose is determined and structured in advance, Fox said.

However, the mentee isn’t the only one with responsibility. Mentors should inform their mentees that they expect them to be organized and prepared.

Another shared task is to come up with the relationship’s ground rules, which is a crucial part of the process.

Ground rules can address issues such as how often conversations will take place and whether they will happen in person, over the phone or a mix of the two.

The ground rules should also touch on the relationship’s boundaries and define inappropriate topics, Zachary said. Workplace conflict, for instance, would likely fall in the inappropriate category.

And both parties must bring a certain level of commitment to the relationship.

“The focus should be on the mentee’s goals and on building, supporting and sustaining the relationship,” Zachary said. The mentor and mentee should “work collaboratively to establish goals that are mutually understood.”

If the first meeting goes well, the mentee should schedule a follow-up to ensure that the conversation continues.

Making midcourse corrections and educating mentors

Some mentoring relationships last for decades, while others span only a few months or even a few minutes.

The length of the relationship — particularly in an informal situation — is directly affected by the ability of the people involved to periodically assess how things are going.

Zachary said mentors and mentees must talk about the progress they are or aren’t making and determine if changes need to be made, which she referred to as midcourse corrections.

Another factor to consider is how to make the relationship a learning experience for the mentor. People often assume mentoring is a one-way street, but mentees should think about ways to be of assistance to their advisers to ensure that benefits flow both ways, Fox said.

Zachary agreed that a mentoring relationship is meant to be reciprocal. For the mentor, the connection with a younger or newer fed might expand their professional perspective, help them understand generational differences or even learn about new technology.

And being a mentor provides the chance to pass on essential skills and serve as a model for the next crop of government leaders and managers.

Nevertheless, even if all the above-mentioned steps are followed, feds might find themselves matched with a mentor or mentee who just doesn’t fit.

If that happens in a formal program, the mentee should inform the person in charge and explain the circumstances as soon as possible. If the relationship happened naturally and something goes awry, the mentee should politely tell the other party that it’s not working for whatever reason and try again with someone new.

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