Of the People: To keep and nurture talent, be a mentor

Ira Hobbs

Across government, managers face a compelling need to attract new people with new skills to public service.

Project managers and system architects, for example, seem to be at the top of everyone's short list. In their search for these badly needed professionals, however, managers must be careful not to overlook the people around them who are already getting the job done.

How we value and express appreciation for our employees speaks volumes about our competency as executives and leaders. When those of us at the senior levels leave government service, our legacy ought not to be just the goals we accomplished and the systems we built. Rather, our legacy should also include the competent, trained, hard-working people that we mentored through the ranks'those who will continue pushing on and raising the performance bar after we have gone.

What do I mean by mentoring? I mean taking the time to share knowledge and experience with other employees'both colleagues and subordinates'interested in their own professional growth.

Mentoring can be formal or informal. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes out of a busy day to help someone think through the best way to solve a problem, understand the complexity of an issue, or consider alternatives in his or her career development.

Mentoring can be a one-time meeting or a lifetime relationship.

Few ever come into government smart, wise and experienced in the areas of their chosen professions. Many of us came in right out of college, full of energy and enthusiasm but unwise in the ways of accomplishing the business of government. Fortunately, there were individuals, both executives and future peers, who were willing to take the time to school the newbies in how to get things done and to prepare us for leadership.

Please ask yourself, could you have achieved your success in government without a mentor? For me, the answer is clearly no.

Mentoring is one of the most important retention tools in a manager's kit. It must be a critical component of any career development program. Thousands of federal workers, with the right attention from the right mentor, would have more positive, fulfilling government careers than they otherwise would.

Speaking personally, I was extremely fortunate to have had a series of mentors during my career. Of all the people who helped me, one stands out. He took me on because he had to, but out of that assignment a mentor-prot'g' relationship grew. I have stayed in touch with my first mentor. Even since his retirement we still get together occasionally for lunch and career counseling. He made all the difference for me and through his effort, taught me the value of giving back.

Each day I remember those lessons and give back part of what I know to those here. What about you?

Ira Hobbs is acting CIO at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.

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