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'Not a Spectator Sport'
OD Launches Formal Year-Long Mentoring Program

By Carla Garnett

No one will argue that it takes a host of measurable resources — education, training, experience — as well as unmeasurables — ambition, motivation, enthusiasm — to make up a successful career, or that some ingredients are much harder to come by than others. Recently the Office of the Director offered 10 employees who demonstrated one sign of success — initiative — the promise of another rarer, and increasingly more important, component of accomplishment — a good mentor.

On Jan. 30, 20 intrepid NIH'ers — 10 workers looking to advance in, or perhaps change, their career fields, and 10 employees seasoned in the desired fields — embarked on a unique year-long training partnership made possible by the OD equal opportunity advisory committee. Conducted by a local firm called Total Learning Solutions, the formal mentoring program is designed for employees in positions up to GS-8. Participants were selected from a pool of applicants by a review panel. Each is provided with a mentor and up to $1,000 for training according to their short- and long-term goals.

Facilitator Cory Edwards

"All of you are about to begin an absolutely unusual program," said Hilda Dixon, OD Diversity and Special Emphasis Program manager and advisor to the committee, whose office researched and contracted with the training provider and otherwise got the program up and running. "For the mentorees, it's about the individual and what you've said you want to be. For the mentors, you've been chosen because you have been a success in your career and for your real honesty in telling people what is good for them to do to accomplish their goals."

What is different about OD's program is two-fold: its focus and its perspective. Most such programs are designed to benefit the organization and the employee mutually. While OD's program will indirectly provide its sponsoring organization with 10 happier workers (more, if you count the mentors), the main idea is to help employees be the best they can be right now and to help them move from one place in their careers to another. That's a novel concept — at least in the federal workplace, according to Cory Edwards, a certified career management coach from Total Learning Solutions who herself logged more than 20 years in government service at the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Defense.

"The goal is advancement in the government, not necessarily at NIH," she pointed out.

In addition, because most of the core concepts in the training module were recommended by an employee, the curriculum reflects a virtual wish list of qualities wanted in a mentor.

"I thought about what I would have wanted in a mentor," said Darlene Pearson, an OD advisory committee member who was recently promoted to EEO specialist in the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management.

Participants in OD's new formal training program (from l) Patricia Jones, Cathy Troxler and Rubina Ahmed gather during the orientation session. Most of the core concepts in the year-long training module were recommended by an NIH employee.

Pearson, along with committee members Emily DeVoto, Roland Corsey, David Clary and Yolanda Robinson, created the OD Mentoring and Training Program, outlining roles of both partners and the module's four phases — implementation, training, maintenance and completion. "I felt if I had had a mentor like the ones in the program," Pearson explained, "I would not have made some of the mistakes I made, and I think I would have advanced faster."

Of particular importance to many mentorees is the structured environment of the program, which was modeled loosely after an earlier NIH mentorship program as well as one used in the intramural science community on campus, the Guide to Training and Mentoring. Featured parts of the training include a 2 ½-hour session on creating a career development plan, a shadow day and a two-on-one mentor/mentoree meeting with a facilitator.

"Accountability is very important," Pearson explained, "because many times people will say they'll mentor you and then you may never hear from them again. [Earlier in my career] I wanted someone who was knowledgeable about their work environment, someone who knew people or was well-connected, but most of all someone who was enthusiastic about being a mentor and would give me their all."

Newly minted mentorees (from l) Natalie Proctor, Cathy Troxler and Parthenia Walker take notes during orientation.

Those hopes and past frustrations were reflected in comments by some of the mentorees chosen for the new OD program.

"At first I thought [this program] might fold," said Parthenia Walker of OD's Office of Management, during introductions at the orientation on Jan. 30. "But I thought about it and realized it's an opportunity to grow. I decided to take my chances."

"I'm always open to learning from someone who has been where I am," agreed Sheila Davis of the Office of Extramural Research.

The structured course clearly spells out the mentoree's role in his or her career track, and the level of involvement by mentors.

"This training is not a spectator sport," Edwards stressed. "You all are expected to be active partners. Mentorees, remember, it's not the agency's job to get you developed or promoted. That's your job. What you can learn in this program is how to take charge of your career and how to communicate better in your jobs. Mentors, you have agreed to share your time and to be accessible. Although this program is scheduled to last only a year, I've often seen mentorships last much longer. Some people mentor for life. I hope that doesn't scare any of you."

John Deermer (l) and David Conboy are two of 10 volunteer mentors representing a variety of career fields at NIH.

Exercises during the orientation were focused on defining individual strengths and weaknesses of both mentorees and mentors. Each partner also completed a Personal Profile System questionnaire that helped categorize personal traits and strategies in problem-solving. Edwards said identifying each other's personality styles and strong points will help partners communicate effectively.

"Strengths overused become weaknesses," she explained, discussing the benefits and drawbacks of such qualities as loyalty, directness and diplomacy. "These exercises are not to peg us, but to give us insight into ourselves."

In addition, mentorees were required to write and submit an individual development plan, complete with measurable targets and deadlines. Partners may meet as often as they choose, and may terminate their partnership at any time. Upon completion of the program, both partners will be asked to evaluate both the training and the mentorship.

If partners stay on course, the benefits of formalized mentorships will be mutual: Mentorees will get a jump on their next career step and mentors will be satisfied to have provided the boost.

Concluded mentor Henry Dove, a supervisory contract specialist in the Office of Management, "I'm glad to have the opportunity to share what I've learned over the years at NIH."

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