Informal Mentors: Why You Need Them (And How to Get Them)
Most people get there at some point: You have an area in your career that you want to improve, but you don’t know how. Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone. A mentor can very likely help you, whether you are trying to manage work/life balance, navigate career decisions, or develop new skills in VA’s All Employee and Leadership Competencies. Not only that, a mentor can also help you get more personal satisfaction from your career.
What if you are not currently participating in one of VA’s formal mentoring programs? Not to worry – you can also get these benefits from informal mentoring relationships. Check out these tips for finding informal mentors and building strong relationships with them.
Remember that you can have more than one
While you should have only one formal mentor at a time, you can (and should) consider having more than one informal mentor. In fact, you might already have a few informal mentors and not realize it. For example, you may have one informal mentor whose career path you’d like to mimic, another whose communication skills you admire because she can effectively interact with anyone, and yet another who you look up to because he is always well-dressed for every situation. Basically, if you deem someone an expert you can go to for advice on a particular topic, you can think of him or her as an informal mentor.
Choose the right people
How do you do this? First, start by thinking about the aspects of your career that could benefit from mentoring. Then, based on the improvement areas you’ve identified, brainstorm about potential people who might help you meet each of your goals. Think about individuals who are knowledgeable enough about you to understand what you do, your skill set, and your aspirations.
Don’t limit yourself to only those in your same work group or chain of supervision. You may actually have a lot in common with someone from another department or position. Of course, looking outside your group of immediate colleagues is even more important if one of your goals is to transition to a new career field. For example, if you are currently a special assistant but aspire to become a contract specialist, you should find someone with contracting experience from whom you can learn.
Keep in mind that while your supervisor may be the person who best knows you and your work, you can still gain quite a lot from the perspective of others. Also, choosing a mentor from outside your chain of command can help avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Make sure you are prepared for your discussions
Don’t let the ‘informal’ label mislead you. While these relationships are informal in the sense that they don’t arise from a structured program, they still require preparation. You should be ready to guide the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and providing ideas on how your potential mentor can help you. Being well-prepared shows you are serious about your goals and demonstrates why having a relationship with you is worth the effort. You can learn more about how to present your best self when seeking career help by checking out MyCareer@VA's tips on effective mentoring conversations.
Don’t worry about imposing – your mentor has a lot to gain, too
Maybe you’re worried about fitting into your mentor’s busy schedule and not being able to offer him or her anything in return. Mentorship, though, can be a deeply fulfilling experience not just for you, but for your mentor, too. By providing advice, mentors have the opportunity to reflect on their own careers and the value of their experience. You are also giving your mentor an excellent opportunity to build leadership skills and possibly to develop a connection at a different level in the organization4 – great goals for someone who is also looking to develop in their career.
Be engaged but respectful
Striking a balance between being respectful of your mentor’s time and staying engaged can be a tricky part of any mentorship. Talk with your mentor about his or her preferred channels of communication – avoid social media or text messages, unless initiated by your mentor – and discuss how often you should plan to meet. Be mindful of your mentor’s other commitments, but don’t let too much time pass in between communications. Maintaining a consistent level of engagement is important, as is showing a genuine interest in the relationship. For example, you can share information with your mentor that you think she would value. Did you find an article of interest to your mentor? Send it her way.
Finally, remember to show your gratitude and acknowledge your mentors’ support. Many times, a simple “thank you” is all that’s needed.
If you are looking for ways to introduce yourself to a potential mentor, check out MyCareer@VA’s Elevator Pitch Prep course to hone your 30-second elevator pitch. You may also like the TMS training “Essential Mentoring Techniques: Mentoring Fundamentals” on the basics of developing a mentoring relationship. And as always, visit MyCareer@VA and the VA Learning University for more training and career development information.
1 “Ten Years of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings: How Six Federal Agencies Improved Employee Satisfaction and Commitment.” Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte. December 18, 2013. 27. http://ourpublicservice.org/OPS/publications/viewcontentdetails.php?id=231
2, 4“Best Practices: Mentoring.” United States Office of Personnel Management. September 2008. http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/training-and-development/career-development/bestpractices-mentoring.pdf
3 Lockwood, Nancy R. “Mentoring Series Part I: The Value of Mentoring.” Society for Human Resources Management, August 1, 2004. http://www.shrm.org/research/articles/articles/pages/mentoring_20series_20part_20i__20the_20value_20of_20mentoring.aspx
Stephen Clabough has his sights set on becoming a hospital director at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s an ambitious goal, but when he shares his plan you can’t help but think that he’ll succeed.
After six years in the Marine Corps, Clabough came to VA as a Presidential Management Fellow, seeking another avenue to continue the service to his country that he began as a Marine. VA was the “only agency I applied for,” he recalls.
It was during his first assignment, as a special assistant to the Director of the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, that he began to map out his future at the Department. One evening after work, Clabough found himself wondering what else was out there. Searching the web, he made his way to MyCareer@VA, accounting for just one of more than 1.5 million visits the site has seen in less than three years.
MyCareer@VA, an initiative led by the VA Learning University, is an effort to transform career development at the Nation’s second-largest Federal agency. The program offers data-driven tools and online resources so that anyone with access to the internet has the opportunity to develop their careers at VA.
Clabough, whose stint as a special assistant was coming to a close when he found the MyCareer@VA program, gravitated toward the My Career Mapping Tool. He typed in his current position and watched as related jobs began to populate on the screen. The path he expected to see – which would take him from his current position of special assistant to executive assistant to assistant director, and so on and so forth – was there among the options. But there were other choices as well.
He honed in on a sequence that moved through acquisitions. Clabough was intrigued by the contract-focused positions, which would make use of his legal experience. He learned that a job in acquisitions could not only lead him toward his ultimate goal, but that the field would round out the fiscal skills he’d need to lead a VA facility.
With MyCareer@VA, every employee is empowered – as Clabough was – to reach for a goal. Providing opportunities to grow is a priority for VA and part of a larger plan to develop and retain talented individuals who can lead the organization through challenging years ahead.
MyCareer@VA is at the center of VA’s strategic commitment to career development. The program is built on helping people find the job that fits them and makes the most of what they like to do and the things they do best.
This concept of “job fit” is more than a nice sentiment. Research shows that employees who use their strengths on the job are six times more likely to be engaged.1 In turn, engagement is critical to reducing turnover and increasing employee productivity.2 In other words: career development not only benefits the individual, it benefits VA as a whole and the 8.5 million Veterans and family members served by the Department.
Just a few years in, the program is making an impact. MyCareer@VA was highlighted by Gina Farrisee, VA’s Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, as one of the reasons for VA’s recent ascent in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings for 2013.
As Clabough discovered, a single action can be the start of a powerful plan. MyCareer@VA users take more than 10,000 such actions each month, from creating resumes to searching for jobs to taking online career development training courses. In the last six months alone, participants dedicated more than 27,000 hours to developing their careers.
This fall, VA employees and job seekers will have an even more powerful way to plan and achieve their career goals as MyCareer@VA launches an enhanced website with expanded tools and resources, as well as the ability to create “to dos” and track progress.
For those in need of further motivation to focus on their careers, Clabough has advice: “You have to find something you truly believe in…it’s about having your big picture, about what you value and what you want.” For Clabough, the big picture is to continue serving his country. It’s with this mindset that he approaches his work and, one day at a time, puts his plan in motion.
1 “State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders.” Gallup, Inc. 2013. http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx
2“Performance in a cost-constrained Federal environment: Improving employee engagement to do more with less.” Deloitte Development LLC. 2011.
How to Get Rid of the Interview Jitters
You’ve polished your resume, applied for jobs that interest you, and now you’re scheduled for an interview. If you’re like most people, interviews can be anxiety-provoking. You know that confidence plays a big role in how others perceive you, so how do you shake off your nerves to deliver a knock-out interview?
First, Know What to Expect
Knowing what to expect both before and during the interview is one of the best ways to feel calm and confident on interview day.
- Plan your day. Feeling rushed or having loose ends on the day of your interview can make you feel more stressed, so plan out your day in advance. How will you get to the interview and how long will it take? How much time should you allot for getting through security? What will you wear that makes you feel professional and confident, yet also comfortable? Be sure to handle details like printing copies of your resume and picking up your suit from the dry cleaners before the big day.
- Know your subject material. Do your research on VA and the organization you’d be joining so you feel knowledgeable about the topics you will be discussing. Take time to review interviewing basics on MyCareer@VA’s InterviewPrep and learn about performance based interviews, the type of interview most commonly used at VA.
Next, Practice Your Answers
Knowing that you can provide a well-rounded and strongly formulated answer will make you feel more confident when sitting across from the interviewer. These steps will help you do just that:
- Organize strong answers. A good answer for a performance based interview is one where you can describe how you’ve performed in previous jobs, delivered results, and made an impact. Learn the Situation, Task, Action, Results method – “STAR” for short – which gives you a format to do all three. Having already thought through your examples using STAR, you can recall them quickly and respond without feeling put on the spot.
- Practice your delivery. Now that you know your answers and how to structure them, the next step is to polish your delivery. Practice being clear and reducing bad habits such as using “um” and “like.” It can be hard to evaluate your answers yourself, so check out MyCareer@VA’s InterviewStream tool, which lets you capture and replay your responses. Using your computer’s webcam, you can record a video of yourself answering common interview questions that you can watch or share with others for feedback.
Still a Little Nervous?
So far you’ve figured out what to expect and you’ve practiced your answers, but if you need a little more help to shake those nerves, these tips are your ace in the hole:
- Visualize success. Visualize yourself delivering a successful interview. You may have heard that visualizing success is a proven technique used by professional athletes like Tiger Woods and former heavy-weight champion Muhammad Ali. Research suggests that this technique works for interviews, too.1 In fact, research shows that creating this vivid mental imagery will help you feel less stressed while also improving your interview performance. As you visualize, try to picture as many details as you can about the experience. For example, imagine the time of day, your mood (calm and collected!), your firm handshake, and your confident smile. Then picture answering each of your practice questions with your best answer; a strong, steady voice; and open, confident body language. Add all the details you can think of, and visualize them several times before your interview. The more vivid your mental imagery is, the more effective it will be.
- Deep breathing. If you find yourself getting nervous during the interview, take your time answering and try taking several deep, slow breaths from your belly the next time the interviewer is talking. The deep breath helps trigger a relaxation response. 2 Taking a deep breath before you respond also allows your voice more support, generally deepening your tone and increasing your speaking volume, making you come across as more confident.
Have other questions about career development? VA offers many resources to help you, so be sure to check out MyCareer@VA and the VA Learning University for more career development information.
1Knudstrup, Mike, Sharon L. Segrest, and Amy E. Hurley. 2003. “The use of mental imagery in the simulated employment interview situation.” Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 6. 573-591.
2Forbes, Elizabeth J., and Ronald J. Pekala. 1993. “Psychological Effects of Several Stress Management Techniques.” Psychological Reports 72: 19-27.
Everyone’s been there. You’re in an important meeting, trying to make an important point, and you can tell the message isn’t getting across. What’s going on? It could be that you and your colleagues or supervisor have different styles of communicating. Throughout your career, you’ll frequently interact with people whose communication styles are different from yours. Learning how to manage these differences is essential to your career – so essential, in fact, that communication and interpersonal effectiveness are both part of VA’s All Employee Competency Model.
So, how do you communicate effectively with someone who communicates differently than you do? Do these two things and you are well on your way…
First, Identify Your Communication Style
Your first move to better communication is learning about your own style. The better you understand your own communication style, the better-positioned you will be to adapt to the styles of others.
According to research on social styles by David Merrill and Roger Reid 1, your communication style is a combination of where you fall on two dimensions: Responsiveness and Assertiveness. To find out where you are on these dimensions, ask yourself these two questions:
- Assertiveness: When you interact with others, do you tend to Ask or Tell them to do an activity?
- Responsiveness: When you interact with others, do you tend to Display your feelings and emotions, or do you tend to keep your feelings and emotions Inside?
Using your answers to these two questions, find your communication style in the chart below. For example, if you tend to Tell and Display, then you prefer to use an Expressive style. As you look at the chart, remember that you may use all of these styles at different times – your style is simply the way you prefer to interact with others. Also, keep in mind that no single style is better than any other. You may prefer a certain style because of your own values or because it feels familiar to you, but each style has positives and negatives.
As you read about your style, be sure to pay attention to its possible strengths and challenges, since these could contribute to miscommunication between you and someone with a different style.
Next, Learn How to Work With Other Styles
While it would be nice if everyone had the same communication style as you, you can communicate more effectively with all types of communicators by making a few simple tweaks to your own style. Think of these behavioral changes as temporary adjustments—you are not changing who you are, just how you approach others.
So how do you do this? Think about someone with whom you have a hard time communicating. For example, can you think of a time you tried to explain an idea to a coworker and felt like you were hitting a brick wall? Now, with that person in mind, take these four steps from Merrill and Reid:
- Step 1: Understand the impression you make. You’ve already identified your style. Now think about how others are likely to perceive you. How can your communication style create stress for others?
- Step 2: Take control of your behavior. Look at the possible strengths and challenges of your style. Which ones describe you and which ones could be contributing to miscommunication between you and your coworker? Think of ways to expand or maximize your strengths and play down your weaknesses.
- Step 3: Identify other styles. Observe your coworker’s behavior and how he or she responds to your style. Follow the same process you used to find your own style to identify and understand your coworker’s style. Does he or she tend to ask or tell others to do something? Does he or she display emotions or keep them hidden?
- Step 4: Adapt. Notice the similarities between your styles. Are there places where you have common ground? For example, if you are a Driver working with an Expressive, you both prefer to make decisions quickly. Make sure to work these similarities into your interactions with your coworker. Next, think about the differences between your styles. Are there any behaviors you can change to better accommodate the preferences of your coworker? For example, if you are an Amiable working with an Analytic, you might try providing more data when you present your ideas.
As you use these steps, remember not to take other people’s communication styles personally. Like yours, their styles are simply a product of their responsiveness and assertiveness, not necessarily a reflection of their thoughts and feelings. Lastly, to communicate effectively takes practice and patience, so remember to practice in different situations with different styles, and make note of what works and what doesn’t.
If you liked this article, check out MyCareer@VA’s tips on effective communication with potential employers. You may also like the TMS training “Managing Your Career: You and Your Boss” on how to build a strong relationship with your supervisor. And as always, visit MyCareer@VA and the VA Learning University for more training and career development information.
1 Merrill, David W. and Roger H. Reid. 1981. Personal Styles and Effective Performance. Florida: CRC Press LLC.
You’ve found the job you want and you’re busy working on your resume. You don’t want that hard work to go to waste, but how do you make sure your resume stands out among all of the resumes that VA receives? All the usual tried-and-true tips for writing a resume are important, but here are a few things about Federal resumes in particular that are good to keep in mind.
1. Be sure you meet all of the qualifications
As you probably already know, Federal job openings can attract hundreds or even thousands of applicants. To narrow down the pool, HR professionals provide hiring managers with a “Best Qualified” list of applicants. The hiring manager reviews the list, chooses whom to interview, and often never sees the rest.
What you may not realize is that HR can only put people on this list who meet all of the minimum qualifications in the job announcement. This means HR will be looking very carefully at everything you list in your resume. Make sure you not only meet the qualifications of the announcement but also spell them out clearly in your application.
2. Tailor your resume every time – it’s worth it!
It’s not uncommon for people to use the same resume to apply to multiple job announcements. While this may seem easier at first, it significantly lowers your chances of getting an interview given the strict, position-specific qualifications required for job announcements.
One way to make applying to several jobs easier is to create a single “master” resume that includes all of your education, experience, skills, awards, and so on. Don’t worry about how long it is – you’ll never send out this master resume, so write everything down. Use this as your starting point and revise it for each job announcement by including only what is relevant to that position and cutting the rest.
Also, keep in mind that MyCareer@VA’s My Federal Resume Builder lets you create and save up to five versions of your resume, making it easy to amend your resume and apply to multiple jobs quickly.
3. Use keywords
As you might imagine, reviewing hundreds of applications to find the most qualified individuals can be a difficult task. To aid in their search, Federal HR professionals (or sometimes a computer program) scan your resume for keywords from the job announcement. Without keywords, it is unlikely your resume will make it past the first review.
What is a keyword? Before you begin work on your resume, carefully read the job announcement. If you see a certain word repeated numerous times, it’s probably a keyword. For example, if you see “contracting” listed repeatedly in the job announcement, it’s safe to assume HR will be looking for someone with contracting expertise.
Other keywords to watch for include specific technical terms or phrases in the job announcement. Before you submit your application, compare your resume with the keywords in the job announcement one last time and make sure the descriptions and language you’ve used in your resume clearly align with the position for which you are applying.
4. Be comprehensive
This means you should include all the relevant experience you would bring to a particular job. This helps HR in two ways. First, HR isn’t allowed to fill in the holes or assume anything about your experience, so you need to paint a clear picture. Second, though qualifications may be inflexible, HR does have the ability to accept the sum total of your relevant experience to determine if you do, in fact, meet requirements. For example, HR can combine the ten months you’ve been a supervisor in your current job with your two months of supervisory volunteer work to meet a required one year of supervisory experience.
So what does including relevant experience look like? If you’re applying for your first job, include information in the education section not only about your internships, but also relevant college coursework and recognition you have received. If you’re a more seasoned applicant, don’t limit it to your previous work experience – talk about volunteer work, technical training, or anything else that may have given you the skills you need for the job. You can learn more here about addressing a job’s requirements successfully in your resume.
5. Keep it relevant
Being comprehensive is extremely important, but being “relevant” is equally so. You should only include information that clearly supports your eligibility for this specific position. Unless your summer job ten years ago as a snake charmer exhibits your qualifications for your desired position, leave it out!
6. Emphasize impact
In addressing the specific qualifications of the position, be sure to emphasize your accomplishments and results from past positions, rather than just a list of the duties you performed. For example, instead of a description like “led a team of 10 for a project,” show the impact you had with something like “led a team of 10 to finish a project ahead of schedule and under budget, resulting in an early launch that helped us meet a key goal for Veteran recruitment.” The difference here is not about including a lengthier description. Rather, it’s about clearly outlining the outcome and impact of your work.
7. Longer resumes are OK, but be concise!
When you’ve tailored your resume, explained in detail all of your relevant experience, emphasized impact, and included keywords, your resume will probably be longer than the 1-2 pages recommended for the private sector. That’s okay. It’s not atypical for an experienced candidate’s Federal resume to be 4-5 pages in length. This does not mean you should go overboard and try to make your resume as long as possible. Remember how many applications HR receives? They need to get a complete picture of your experience, but they always prefer to read fewer pages (wouldn’t you?). Keep your resume overall as concise as possible.
Need additional help with your job search or application process? Browse the VA Career Guides to learn more about the kind of job you’re applying for, and don’t forget you can search open positions at VA with VA Job Finder. Lastly, click here for more information about understanding VA job announcements.