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By Steve Kelman

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An innovative approach to mentoring the new contracting workforce

I met recently with Deborah Broderick, the dynamic new senior procurement executive at the FBI. This is an agency with a sometimes-troubled contracting history -- pretty much in any part of the lawyer-dominated Justice Department, management skills have traditionally been very undervalued -- and Broderick, who comes from the outside (actually, she is a lawyer!), has been trying to make a lot of improvements in the contracting operation there.

We talked recently about two of the many changes she is introducing -- an approach to mentoring new contracting employees and an idea for conducting real-time training in performance-based contracting. I'll talk about her mentoring approach in this blog and will write a column about real-time performance based contracting training shortly.

We are facing two kinds of problems in providing mentoring to the many new contracting employees we are hiring. One is that more senior folks are overwhelmed with their own work and don't have the time, or don't believe they have the time, to provide advice and mentoring to the newbies. A second is that, at least in some organizations, the old folks are mired in perhaps dysfunctional ways of doing business, and thus, if they provide mentoring, they may merely be perpetuating less-appropriate practices.

Broderick feels she has some of both problems, but she has developed a way to deal with it. She is using contractor personnel from a non-profit federally funded research and development center who are former government contracting officials to help mentor the eight new hires she has in her office.

She has two of them available to review procurement packages one-on-one with new employees and to suggest better ways for them to do business (market research, strategic sourcing, reverse auctions) that the older employees don't use very much. As a side job, the contractor employees give on-site training tailored to the needs of the new employees. Broderick feels she is killing two birds with one stone -- providing mentoring resources for the new hires, and getting improved procurement practices introduced, via the newbies, into the office.

My own view is that bringing on-board a new generation of the contracting workforce -- that transition is underway as many older people begin to retire and we continue to hire lots of new ones -- is right up there among the most-important challenges that any leader of a contracting office, indeed any supervisor, faces today. For this reason, I am unsympathetic to the suggestion that supervisors and office leaders have "no time" for mentoring. I am guessing many of these people are finding the time for activities that are much less strategically important to the future of contracting and hence the ability of government to perform well.

It's a question of priorities. So I don't believe mentoring can or should be fully contracted out, even to an FFRDC. Nonetheless, time constraints being what they are, Broderick's solution is an appealing way to stretch the in-house mentoring resources agencies have available. Furthermore, the current demand for mentoring is unlikely to be permanent, which is a good reason to use contractor personnel (who can be eliminated when the need ceases) to supplement in-house staff.

Any other agencies doing this? Experience with it? Other ideas for mentoring the new generation of contracting professionals?

Posted on Apr 27, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, Jun 10, 2010

My training/mentoring consisted of the last guy's computer and a phone number for someone on another project that I called twice. I've been told it would have been worse in a more usual private sector job... if so, I'm shocked the system functions at all.

Wed, May 5, 2010 Ef

Deb, What a wonderful idea! We have a number of interns in our organization that desperately need our attention and mentoring and we don't always have the time to give them what they need--not because we don't want to, but just limited time. Augmenting our efforts with experienced X-1102’s that are now contractors for an FFRDC is very intriguing and innovative. Thanks for the idea!

Tue, May 4, 2010 Deb Broderick

In my experience, successful CO's share common traits that have little to do with their years on the job. One of my most valuable employees is a 30 year veteran (without a degree) that earned a reputation as a subject matter expert who reliably provides solid advice in the best interest of the Bureau. She diligently works at her craft, listens, is willing to learn and actively pursues new methods. She volunteers in a crisis without being asked, doesn't point fingers when the unexpected happens but instead gets to work to accomplish the mission. I'm blessed to have many CO's that meet this description, both new hires and veterans.

Unfortunately, I also have a number of CO's that are stuck in the past. They prefer tested methods despite evidence that new approaches yield contract savings or improved contractor performance.

Being faced with the perfect storm, increasing budgets, stagnant FSL, retiring staff, untrained new hires, and new approaches to learn, the (non-puritanical) FFRDC has done a fabulous job of filling this need. Since they are not responsible for a workload, they have ample time to counsel and advise a very eager-to-learn staff.

One of the benefits of Steve's blog is that we are able to learn from other's experiences. I hope that is the case here.

Tue, May 4, 2010

It is humerous to me even as we tell "close to retirement" government contracting personnel how they are potrayed they actually comment via this blog and verify/perpetuate this viewpoint. Quit counting down the days and support the young folks coming up in this career. If you find a rotten apple of a young employee try and guide them. I have 6 yrs in contracting experience and would have died for a proactive mentor to help guide my understanding of this career field. Mentors are a must and with the demographics as they are (baby boomer retirement), we will fail without them. Knowledge mgmt can only do (save info/knowledge) so much; it's the personal relationships that build the next generation. There are so many people about to retire with knowledge that seemingly don't care. Step up to the plate.

Mon, May 3, 2010 Steve Kelman

Thanks all for these comments! I would like basically to agree with James M. The newbies are potentially a great source of new energy and ability for our system. Many are smart and committed, but of course lack experience. We need to stop the older folks demonizing the young ones as "arrogant" and the younger ones demonizing the older ones as "stale" or "uncreative." What is more important than these kinds of stereotypes is the willingness of the experienced people to provide advice and the eagerness of the younger ones to make a difference for better government performance. Both groups have something to contribute. I remain convinced that the challenge of creating the next generation of contracting professionals is a crucial strategic challenge for contracting managers now -- and this means both giving the newbies mentoring and providing them with assignments that challenge rather than bore them.

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