Mentor Larry Koskinen, assistant inspector general U.S. Postal Service sits with his mentee Alicia Ellis at the USPS offices in Rosslyn, Va., on Oct. 9. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
As a federal employee for more than 30 years, Larry Koskinen has racked up hard-earned lessons to pass along: Worry less about your job title and corner office, and more about the challenges you face and the problems you solve. Do not get so jaded and hemmed in by your experience that you grow fearful of stepping outside your comfort zone. And many others.
Koskinen, 58, an assistant inspector general and chief technology officer for the U.S. Postal Service, is an enthusiastic mentor to younger feds. He says he enjoys not only passing on bits of wisdom he’s gathered over the years, but also the energy and fresh ideas he gets in return from his mentees, such as 28-year-old Alicia Ellis, a new management and program analyst at the Treasury Department.
“She need not make the same mistakes [I did],” he says, like staying too long in a job that is not the right job; not developing effective relationships with a broad range of people across an organization; and not identifying and seizing opportunities when they surface.
As federal baby boomers approach retirement age — more than a half-million are already eligible to retire, according to the latest federal data — more senior federal employees are signing up to serve as mentors.
The State and Energy departments, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency and NASA are among the agencies with model mentoring programs, and more agencies and organizations are following suit in a bid to stem the brain drain now hitting them.
GovLoop, a social networking site for federal employees and contractors, launched its own mentoring program for employees at all levels of government, as well as those from outside organizations and contractors.
“A tremendous amount of knowledge and wisdom is leaving the federal government right now,” said Melanie Stinnett, acting chief counsel at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and secretary for the Senior Executives Association. “This means there is a significant need for mentoring and knowledge transfer in the federal government, and we have to figure out how to meet this challenge.”
Stinnett said there is also an urgent need for coaching and mentoring in areas of softer skills, such as collaboration, political savvy and communication.
“Young folks are skilled at a lot of things, but they’re not skilled at some important things, as well,” such as how to build relationships, how to conduct informational interviews and not taint them by asking for a job, and the proper etiquette for networking events, said Koskinen. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are great tools, but they were meant to amplify relationships, not replace them, he said, during a monthly get-together with Ellis.
Koskinen began meeting with Ellis last month as part of a pilot mentoring program. The two email back and forth regularly and meet at least monthly to talk about Ellis’ future career plans as she navigates her long-term career options.
Last week, the two chatted in Koskinen’s Rosslyn, Va., office about her strengths, or as he calls them, Ellis’ basket of assets: political connections from a previous stint in the Texas state legislature, an awareness of the influence of K Street lobbying firms and passion for federal service.
“But she didn’t know how to negotiate those or understand them; maybe [she] undervalued them,” Koskinen said about Ellis, a Texas native whose federal service began in the military.
Ellis said she came to Washington this year as a Presidential Management Fellow with ideas and ambitions, but the challenge she faces is figuring out what can be done now to achieve those dreams, and “that’s what he has helped me with,” she said.
Other younger federal employees agree that mentors can make a big difference in their lives and careers.
When Ned Culhane chose a budding career at the National Institutes of Health after college, pay and benefits weren’t his deciding factors. The 29-year-old had considered a federal career before graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 2006, but “I saw it more as a place holder,” he said. That was until the supervisor overseeing his summer internship stepped in, helped him weigh his career options after graduation and made a case that NIH would be a good landing spot, Culhane said.
“I came back to NIH because of an informal mentor,” he said. “She helped me see myself in a long-term job with the federal government.”
Culhane, a program analyst, said his career path could have taken a different turn without the guidance, mentoring and coaching he has received over the past 5½ years.
In September, the Senior Executives Association partnered with the organization Young Government Leaders to launch a pilot mentor program where senior executives across government mentor younger federal employees, mostly outside their agencies.
Ellis and Culhane are among nearly two dozen employees who have been matched with mentors under the pilot. Culhane said having a mentor from outside of his agency gives him greater confidence that his conversations will remain confidential. He also has greater comfort knowing his mentor is not directly related to any problems or concerns he may have. His mentor also provides an objective second opinion.
“We have some young people coming in, and they need a chance to feel like they can talk with someone, someone who is truly interested in their futures and careers,” said Mona Rowe, Culhane’s mentor and associate director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
“It’s very easy, I think, to get somewhat isolated at top-level positions, when working 12- [or] 14-hour days. I don’t get a chance to get out and talk with folks outside NIH,” Rowe said. “For me to be able to have a chance to actually talk to other SESers and learn from them and see how they are going through the mentoring process and learn about their jobs, trials and tribulations, it’s a learning experience for me.”
Mentors are also benefiting from the insight of their mentees. The experts call it reverse mentoring, but many of the senior executives in the program are looking to their mentees to provide insight on managing a younger and more mobile workforce.
Rick Holgate, chief information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said he and his mentee have discussed the realities of employee retention among younger workers. His mentee finds it hard to imagine staying in one position more than three years, Holgate said. Agencies need to understand this next-generation workforce and learn how to better accommodate them and appease their desires for new and challenging work that provides opportunities for advancement.
“[Mentees] are individuals that are very talented, they’re very motivated, they have a lot to offer federal government. I think it behooves us to provide whatever assistance, guidance, encouragement that we can so that they ... stick around the federal government for as long as we can get them,” Holgate said.
Lisamarie Ng, a bank examiner at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and participant in the pilot program, has already put her mentor’s advice to work.
When Ng was tasked last month with managing a small group of her peers on a training project, she — as its youngest employee, with slightly less experience — wasn’t sure how to garner respect from the team.
“[My mentor] said a lot of individuals who are provided with managerial roles go into it with incorrect mindsets, looking at technical issues as opposed to people and skills and really connecting with them and figuring out how teamwork can contribute to a great project,” she said.
“I’ve been able to understand my leadership skills better because of the way we bounce ideas off each other,” said Ng, who hopes to follow in her mentor’s footsteps and become a senior executive.
Most of their contact is via email because she is based in New York, but her mentor, a senior executive at Treasury, has promised to make himself available whenever needed.
As a leader, if you do not help employees move up, improve their talents and abilities, and identify people for upward mobility, then you have failed as leader, said Farrell Chiles, a retired human resources executive for the Army Reserve. Chiles has mentored many federal employees and has served as chairman of the board of Blacks in Government.
One problem with many federal mentoring programs is that they aren’t well advertised and a lot of people don’t know they exist, said Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job” and a columnist for Federal Times.
Draw on retirees
Another issue is that agencies often do not capitalize on the knowledge of retired employees.
“We should actually look at lifelong employee and lifelong relationships,” said Jeff Pon, chief human resources and strategy officer at the Society for Human Resource Management.
There are retired employees who have spent decades at agencies, and some people genuinely want to help, with no expectation of being paid for their expertise.
“We always talk about people and the job that they do as opposed to the occupation, skills and knowledge they have and what we as an organization need to operate a business,” Pon said. “We really need to talk about a talent or people budget because that is what is going to matter in our knowledge economy.”