Mentoring is a two-way street – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Mentoring is a two-way street

What makes a perfect mentor? Is it age and seniority? Perhaps it is years of education and experience? When we think of mentorship, we tend to think of the wise sage and his apprentice — the sensei passing on his years of experience and his words of wisdom to the young and inexperienced student.

The concept of mentoring has evolved from protégé mentoring to include reverse and collegial mentoring. While these forms are widely recognized and practiced, there is a need to explore non-restrictive (regardless of levels and seniority) mentorship.

To attract a diverse range of new public servants, ranging from entry-level to mid-level to senior professionals, there is a need to explore mentoring outside the boundaries of seniority and age, to view mentoring as a “two-way” street where learning and mentoring is a shared partnership between two professionals.

Professional development can be through a collaborative partnership where the matches are based on knowledge transfer and the sharing of cultures. Mentor matches can be arranged on the basis of identifying areas of knowledge, culture and work functions. For example, policymakers could explore mentorships outside of their policy group and seek matches with individuals who implement policy.

There is a tendency to seek mentors within the same work areas and arrange these matches based on seniority. As an alternative, a policy analyst could explore a mentor partnership with a compliance officer who implements the policies. This would allow both individuals to gain a better understanding of each other’s roles and to work together to address challenges within their work. This type of partnership allows each individual to develop a shared understanding.

Today’s new public servants are diverse and include mid-level professionals who bring a wealth of knowledge, experience and new perspectives. A successful two-way mentoring partnership is dependent upon how open individuals are to innovative ideas and new thinking. Partners are encouraged to challenge each other’s thinking and perspectives. This form of mentoring also encourages healthy debate and constructive feedback.

Essential to the success of mentoring is the partnership, an agreement between two individuals who share expectations and goals of their mentorship. The shift away from “mentor knows best” allows both individuals to take on a shared accountability for learning while exchanging their knowledge, allowing each to gain from the other’s perspective.  

As our workplaces and cultures evolve, the shift to working more collaboratively across government, rather than in independent silos or specialized areas, allows public servants to address issues from a more integrated, holistic and innovative way. The shift to a systems thinking environment requires government organizations to work as an interconnected entity and demonstrates the need for two-way mentoring. The ability to see the bigger picture and the connections we have with each other are essential.  

Mentorship should be without boundaries and based on individual needs, eliminating the restrictions of age and seniority and recognizing that each individual brings value to the organization. A simple checklist opens the dialogue for any mentor partnership. Prior to arranging a partnership (either formal or informal), it is suggested that the checklist be reviewed and the partners draw up an agreement.  

Helen Wong and Wendy Reukema are new provincial public servants who entered as mid-level professionals. Both work for Alberta Environment and have mentored each other throughout the development of the mentorship program between Alberta Environment and Alberta Energy.

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