Program participants' achievements tended to follow two overarching themes: developing new contacts and gaining strategies for achieving career growth and development.
What if there was a virtual, government-wide mentoring program that not only reached out across the varying levels of government (federal, state, and local), but also bridged the expanse between agencies, experience, and geographical distance?
While many government agencies have outstanding mentoring programs that match less experienced employees with their more seasoned counterparts within the same organization, there could be immense value in a mentorship program that connects colleagues without boundaries.
What if such a program existed? Would it work? Based on the initial feedback from just such a recent pilot project, the prospects are promising.
Let's look at the design, development, and delivery of a three-month, virtual, government-wide mentorship program, as well as lessons learned, participant feedback, and program updates that were incorporated into a full program launch in February 2012.
Timeline, Structure, and Design
In March 2011, GovLoop—a vibrant online community connecting more than 50,000 public sector professionals—set out to explore the creation of a government-wide mentoring program. GovLoop approached The Training Connection (TTC), a small, woman-owned business that runs more than 50 simultaneous mentor programs in federal agencies, to help. The vision for the program was to connect experienced and retired civil servants with professionals who are relatively new to the public sector or are seeking to move their career to the next level.
The timeline for the program from design through launch and execution included
- April 2011: Engaged in strategic planning and program design activities
- May 2011: Customized The Mentoring Connection, a competency-based matching software
- June 2011: Initiated the program with mentors
- July 2011: Launched the program to mentees at the Next Generation of Government event
- August 2011: Conducted a live, web-based kickoff session with 50 pairings (100 participants total)
- September-October 2011: Posted blogs on GovLoop with tips for hosting a successful mentoring relationship, which were shared by email with mentors and mentees every two weeks
- November 2011: Administered a program evaluation survey and hosted a live, web-based closeout session.
For the pilot program, GovLoop accepted the first 50 mentees who selected the initiative to engage in the pilot. In addition, mentors were asked to approve only one mentee pairing. The program did not dictate the structure or content of their six meetings, but encouraged them to connect via myriad formats such as in person, on the phone, or via video chat.
Levels of Government and Agency Pairings
In these pairings, 27 percent of matches did not work in the same level of government (federal, state, and local), and 92 percent of matches were not from the same agency. Participants represented more than 60 organizations, including more than 30 federal agencies.
Pilot Program Survey Results
Demographic and Geographic Impact
Each mentee was matched with a mentor whom he felt could provide the best possible learning experience based on a variety of professional competencies, personal preferences, compatibility, and availability criteria. When comparing the differences among partner pairings, Table 3 shows that experience garnered the highest positive ratings at 84 percent, which TTC has found to be common among mentoring programs. Level of government (federal, state, local) rated third highest for positive impact at 44 percent. That number is likely lower than experience as a positive indicator because the difference was "not applicable" to 31 percent of the pairings.
Not surprising, the most important feedback was that 46 percent found the challenge of geographical differences to have either "no effect" or a "positive effect," and only 18 percent of the participants found the obstacle difficult to overcome. This feedback suggests that a virtual, government-wide mentor program is viable, but careful attention must be given to support remote participants.
Overall, 93 percent of mentees felt that the program was "effective" or "very effective" in helping them grow personally and professionally. When asked what specific gains or successes the mentees had made personally or professionally as a result of participating in the GovLoop Mentors program, the responses tended to follow two overarching themes: developing new contacts and gaining strategies for achieving career growth and development.
Seven out of 10 mentees (69 percent) reported that the program was "effective" or "very effective" in developing important relationships and contacts, and 89 percent of mentees indicated that the program was "effective" or "very effective" in providing professional support around career advancement. The responses below capture this sentiment:
"The program has helped me break down some of the barriers of networking and create a broader range of contacts across government boundaries (department and agency). Speaking with someone outside of my agency helped me not only make new contacts, but also gain a perspective of my skills and value from the outside instead of just from within our agency."
"I developed new contacts [and] increased my awareness of other opportunities for professional development â€¦ and I improved my ability to effectively communicate what my agency does to someone from outside my agency."
Regarding the length of the program, more than half of the mentees believed that three months was not sufficient. These mentees felt that the "goals are bigger than what would be feasibly accomplished in three months." Two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) recommended lengthening the program to four or more months; 14 percent indicated that the program should be changed to a situational mentoring approach with no defined time period.
Seven out of 10 mentors (71 percent) reported that the GovLoop Mentors Program was "effective" or "very effective" in helping them to grow personally or professionally. Another 72 percent thought that the program made a real difference in their mentee's life or career.
Topics covered in mentor sessions varied among the pairings, and ranged from networking to writing skills and beyond, depending on the needs of the mentee. As one mentor reported,
"We explored some challenging questions and worked on an application for a leadership development program at my mentee's agency. We discussed how to best handle it should she not be selected and some ideas on how to create a briefing on partnering across boundaries. I thought it might make a nice briefing for a variety of audiences and encouraged her to work on it. We also discussed possible shadow assignments and next steps for her career."
In the pairings that mentors perceived to be less successful, the mentors only reviewed rÃ©sumÃ©s and listened to the mentees voice their career concerns; however, they were not sure if their advice had been helpful or put into practice.
Participants were asked: "How could the GovLoop Mentors Program be improved for future participants?" Two suggestions were most prevalent among responses: lengthen the program and host an in-person kickoff session. In response, the Spring 2012 GovLoop Mentors Program responded to those requests.
Expand to Four-Month Program
Several respondents indicated that they would benefit from having a longer program to schedule more meetings with their partners. To accommodate more mentoring relationships over the course of a year and to offer more personalized support to the pairings, GovLoop chose to run two, four-month cohorts—one in spring 2012 and one in fall 2012.
Host a Kickoff Event
Hosting an event with all the mentors and mentees in the program in the very beginning will address multiple issues that were mentioned in responses. First, it will offer an opportunity for pairings to meet in person. Even if they choose to meet by phone for the rest of the program, this initial meeting should strengthen the relationship from the outset. Second, it will give all participants the chance to network with other members of their cohort.
Start Competitive Selection
Due to a significant increase in interested mentors and mentees, the GovLoop Mentors Program moved to a more selective process for the spring 2012 program. It also expanded from 50 to 100 pairs. A competitive process scored mentees according to their previous track record of success, completeness of application, long-term career goals, and specific outcomes for the program.
Each applicant's profile received a thorough review by at least two members of the GovLoop team, which led to a composite score. While mentors were not selected via a competitive process, each of their profiles also was reviewed to ensure that they had provided enough information for the mentee to make a decision and to ensure that that they had an appropriate level of experience for the program.
In response to the original question, "Can a virtual, government-wide mentoring program work?" the answer appears to be "yes." For instance, one mentee remarked:
"I have very much enjoyed my mentorship, and we plan to continue it after this pilot ends. In particular, my mentor has given me excellent advice on how to handle different situations at work and helped me examine issues that are common across federal departments."
This comment from a mentor best summarizes the potential of such a cross-government program:
"I felt like we connected, and that many of the challenges my mentee was facing were similar to those I've faced in the past. Much of my experience came from 30-plus years in federal government. â€¦ It was somewhat surprising to me that many of the issues are still the same today, and as prevalent in city government as they were in federal service."
Geographic distance still presents a noteworthy obstacle to address in subsequent iterations of the program; however, the overall differences in agencies, backgrounds, and experiences appear to be a program asset.