Mentoring in Government Agencies: 5 Ways to Empower Employees

Mentoring has long been an effective informal career development tactic in many government agencies. In a testimony to Congress, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Associate Director and Chief Human Capital Officer Nancy H. Kichak described the use of mentoring by federal agencies:

“Mentoring is critical and can happen in many ways – through formal programs and through day-to-day interaction with one’s supervisors and fellow employees. The Federal Workforce Flexibility Act requires agencies to provide training to managers and supervisors on mentoring their employees…Many agencies run formal stand-alone mentoring programs to enhance personal and career development. Formal mentoring programs have structure, oversight, and clear and specific organizational goals.”
(U. S. Office of Personnel Management, 2010)

Traditional mentoring programs focus on developing junior government employees (mentees) by pairing them with more experienced and often senior staff (mentors) for several months. Although this form of mentoring remains popular, mentoring as a strategy has expanded to serve a wider variety of development programs in agencies, such as diversity training or leadership development.

Here is a quick overview of how mentoring in government agencies can help improve the engagement, development, and retention of government employees today:

1) Employee Career Development. Agencies have limited budgets and cannot afford to lose money on employee turnover costs or low productivity. It turns out that opportunity for learning and development is a top driver of engagement and retention of public sector employees. Marnie Green recently described “the culture of development”, which is a retention cornerstone, in her recent blog post, “Four Cultures of Employee Retention in the Public Sector.”1 Setting up a widespread career mentoring program can help solve the retention problem by helping employees grow and learn, understand their current positions better, plus illuminate career paths going forward.

2) Leadership Development. High potentials are an incredibly valuable asset to any agency, but they’re often difficult to retain. In a recent Washington Post article, “Federal Agencies Not Doing Enough to Build Next Generation of Leaders,” the author quotes a report from the Partnership for Public Service, in which McKinsey & Company examined the current state of talent development for the Senior Executive Service (SES). They discovered that agencies pay insufficient attention to identifying, developing, recruiting, and selecting individuals for the SES—leaving our government’s leadership in need.2

Mentoring programs are an effective, cost-effective strategy to reward high potentials with personal attention and guidance, providing fuel for the leadership chain. By connecting high potentials with leaders, top performers, and each other across the organization, high potentials learn faster and are ready to take on leadership positions sooner.

3) Diversity Mentoring. Mentoring is a smart way for agencies to support the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s “Government-Wide Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.”3 Through diversity initiatives, public employees learn cultural awareness to create an inclusive corporate culture and become aware of their own importance to their organization. Mentoring creates an environment of trust and belonging while giving employees an opportunity to voice their concerns, overcome hurdles, and find solutions. As a result, mentoring can inspire employees to perform to their highest ability.

4) Reverse Mentoring. All employees possess skills relevant to their generation. To take advantage of this, agencies can offer reverse mentoring, where younger employees with modern skills that can teach more mature workers the latest business technologies and workplace trends. At the same time, mature employees can offer their own advice, making this a mutually beneficial relationship. This can work to re-invigorate and improve employee engagement and performance on all fronts.

NASA is an agency which has taken advantage of reverse mentoring. Tom Fox of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service recently wrote, “NASA implemented a reverse mentoring program where junior employees mentor more senior staff on a particular topic area. For example, one employee mentored a deputy center director on how to effectively use social media. This program brings a variety of benefits, such as improved networking and personal connections among staff, and increased exposure to new fields and topics.”4

5) Knowledge Transfer. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that more than one-third of career federal employees are projected to be eligible for collecting their end-of-career benefits by September 2017, compared to just 14 percent at the same time in 2012. As a result, the GAO concluded that the large numbers of retirement-eligible employees in coming years may be a cause for concern because “their retirement could produce mission-critical skills gaps if left unaddressed.”5

Harnessing the knowledge of these employees before retirement through a mentoring program can provide an excellent method for filling this gap. Sharing knowledge throughout an agency not only increases productivity, but can also help with succession strategies. Mentoring is an effective approach to capture and distribute important internal knowledge by providing employees with direct access to a range of experts and peers who can share the vital knowledge and skills. Knowledge transfer fuels succession planning, ensuring that once executives retire, someone with plenty of company knowledge will be ready to step into place.

Through mentoring, government employees can identify themselves as a vital part of the organization and have a heightened level of ownership with increased productivity. Because mentoring improves employee engagement and retention along with other initiatives, it helps a government agency’s mission effectiveness while also ensuring that employees feel committed to accomplishing their work in accordance to the vision of the organization.

To learn more about each type of mentoring and understand how they have worked in other organizations, please refer to the full Chronus whitepaper and case studies on using mentoring in the workplace.

1 http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/resources/hr-tips/4-cultures-employee-retention-public-sector/

2 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2013/07/26/federal-agencies-not-doing-enough-to-build-next-generation-of-leaders/

3 https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/diversity-and-inclusion/reports/governmentwidedistrategicplan.pdf

4 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2014/01/02/tips-from-federal-agencies-with-happy-employees/

5 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2014/01/30/fed-worker-retirement-eligibility-to-skyrocket-by-2017-report-says/

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Melissa McDonough

You mention a GAO report in this blog entry–can you send me a link to that report or provide me with the report’s title and publication date? I’m interested in reading it!