A three-step guide to successful mentor-mentee relationships
by Joseph D. Conklin
I’m a firm believer in mentoring. There were several important people who took the time to make a difference in my quality career, and after I thought about what made their mentoring a success, it boiled down to three steps:
- Set clear goals.
- Plan actions to support those goals.
- Monitor the plan.
I work for a federal agency, and last year, I took a turn being a mentor after signing up for its program. The mentee assigned to me was named Brandy. During our first meeting, we talked about her goals and expectations. In quality terms, I was asking the customer about her requirements.
Set clear goals
Brandy was in her late 20s and had joined the agency after a brief stint out of college working for a major government contractor in the area. After two conversations, she explained her four short-term goals:
- Learn about career development in the federal government.
- Improve her oral communication skills.
- Build a network of professional contacts.
- Learn more about the global energy economy.
Her long-term goal was to move from her role in purchasing to a supervisory position in the agency’s analysis group.
Supporting action plans
We agreed on four categories of activities—one for each of her short-term goals—that would bring her closer to her long-term goal. To help her learn about career development in the federal government, we came up with three actions:
- Have a professional review Brandy’s résumé.
- Visit the website of a nonprofit organization that offers career advice for federal employees.
- Review career-development courses in the agency’s online catalog.
I was a member of the agency’s Toastmasters International club, a professional association with members who build leadership and communication skills through educational programs, such as prepared speeches with constructive and structured feedback, and organized member meetings. I knew a member who was a retired HR employee of the agency, and she agreed to meet with Brandy to review her résumé.
To help Brandy improve her oral communication skills, she attended two club meetings and expressed an interest in joining. I also suggested she watch a video of Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address as president of South Africa, hoping it would give her speaking tips or inspiration.
For building her network of professional contacts, I suggested she attend local chapter meetings of professional economists and project managers, and complete informational interviews with agency employees.
The economists group introduced Brandy to the analysis department, including supervisors who managed complex research projects. This helped her decide whether she wanted to pursue more training in economics. And her meeting with the project-management group provided a better understanding of what skills were required in that field.
Brandy found the informational interviews with agency employees easy to complete. She interviewed an employee who was close to her age with five more years of experience at the agency. She also interviewed a manager of one of the agency’s major survey groups who had 15 years of experience. The manager talked to Brandy about the milestones she had to reach to advance her career. Brandy enjoyed hearing the employees’ experiences and tips, and took a lot of notes.
After she completed the interviews, I found a way for Brandy to augment her insights. Three members of my local quality section who had management responsibilities agreed to meet with her. This allowed Brandy to learn about management and leadership in the private sector, and rounded out her perspective on what it takes to be a good supervisor.
For Brandy’s fourth short-term goal—learning about the global energy economy—we created activities she should complete in the following six months:
- Regularly read energy articles in Government Executive magazine as well as international news stories about energy issues.
- Sign up for the agency’s energy studies program.
Government Executive’s audience is managers and supervisors of federal agencies. Its stories offer useful insights, such as how to set priorities, manage teams, measure success or provide effective organizational communication—skills all future managers need.
I showed Brandy online sources for relevant news stories, and she signed up for the energy studies program as soon as she was eligible. Selecting, scheduling and completing these activities concluded step two of our mentoring process: Plan actions to support your goals.
Monitor the plan
Toward the end of the mentorship, Brandy wrote an article on the agency’s website about an important energy issue. It wasn’t part of the original mentoring plan, but it allowed her to practice communication skills that were part of her short-term goals. For successful mentoring, mentees must be on the alert for unexpected opportunities to work on their goals.
We met monthly to measure her progress and tweak our plan. At these meetings, Brandy talked about the latest challenge she faced at her job. I loaned her my copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and suggested she read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey—two books that helped me during my career.
The six-month mentorship passed quickly. What made it work was including major goals, being flexible in choosing and scheduling activities, checking in frequently and making sure the program stayed connected with what Brandy experienced on the job.
By the end of it, Brandy had a strategy she could continue on her own. I encouraged her to reapply for the mentorship program and find a person who could help her complete the next stage of her career growth. And I’ve saved my three-step mentoring process for the next mentee to come under my wing.
Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and is a senior member of ASQ. Conklin is also an ASQ-certified quality manager, engineer, auditor, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.