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How to Foster Reverse Mentoring at Your Agency

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide The Human Resources Playbook for Government. Download the full guide here

Going on coffee runs, making copies and answering • phone calls is an all too real job description for some young professionals. Whether they’re interns or even full-time, entry-level workers, doing mundane tasks is the norm for them.

But many agencies are trying to fight that stereotype and give employees a platform to take on new roles and expand their spheres of influence. Mentor relationships are one option. Although it isn’t a new phenomenon, by fully embracing the mentor-mentee relationship, agencies can benefit from another form of mentoring where roles are reversed.

Reverse mentoring, as Kevin Barta, Director of Digital Communications at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, put it, is all about giving junior employees new opportunities to grow. Allowing the mentee to show off her skills and being open to having her teach you something valuable can open the door to a meaningful, productive relationship.

Barta and his mentee, Megan Soule, a graduate student at Syracuse University, gave us advice on how to implement reverse mentoring at any agency and reap the rewards of a non-traditional work relationship.

Remember that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. At the heart of mentoring is the notion that it’s beneficial to the mentee. With reverse mentoring, both parties are learning and growing as professionals. Whether mentees are showing their mentors how to work cloud technology or a mentor is reviewing a mentee’s resume, everyone should be gaining something from this relationship.

Come prepared. Interns and entry-level employees should have an idea in mind of something bigger they can contribute to the agency, Soule said. On the agency side, Barta stressed the importance of having significant tasks ready for these employees to do, not just busy work.

Get clarity up front. To foster a strong mentoring relationship, Barta suggests being open and honest about career goals from the start. By talking through employees’ long-term goals, managers are better prepared to assist them with career growth. Also, making goals clear allows both groups to see how they can learn from each other, in more specific ways.

Scope out a bigger project. Soule and Barta’s reverse mentoring experience never would have happened if Soule hadn’t made clear her Adobe expertise. Because she did, she ended up teaching a class of 30 State Department employees on how to properly use Adobe. Don’t be afraid to reach — even teach — higher. And if you’re a senior-level employee, be open to a younger employee teaching you.

Start small. To really flesh out what a particular employee is capable of, Barta suggested giving them a small project and gauging how much assistance they require. From there, it’s possible to grow those responsibilities.

It takes a village. While it’s great for new employees to have one particular supervisor that they can go to with questions or help, Soule and Barta both speak to the notion of surrounding them with potential mentors in every department at your agency. This provides a holistic view of the work that’s being done. Then mentees can form stronger relationships with senior employees and more easily cultivate reverse mentoring opportunities.

Don’t treat someone like an intern. Even if someone technically is an intern, giving them banal tasks isn’t helpful. It hinders their ability to learn and could end up giving the employee a negative opinion of the agency.

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