Government and industry alike are looking to solve a serious personnel problem – how to attract more young talent (particularly minorities and women), to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers. One unexpected solution may be found in how we motivate and promote the current workforce through mentorship.

The Intelligence and National Security Alliance is gearing up for its annual INSA Achievement Awards (the deadline to submit a nomination is Friday, October 30). One of those awards is the Joan A. Dempsey Mentorship Award. It’s open to government, military and industry professionals working in the fields of national security and intelligence. It should come as no surprise that it’s named after a professional who highly values the importance of mentorship. Joan Dempsey, Executive Vice President of  Defense and Intelligence at Booz Allen Hamilton, recently chatted with ClearanceJobs about the role mentorship has played in her career personally, and how important it is at her company.

“Mentorship has been a tremendous factor in my career,” said Dempsey. “When I was coming up as a young woman professional, there weren’t many women in the community.” Fortunately, she said, men within her organization who were interested in promoting diversity took the time to offer guidance and counsel. She described the mentors who helped throughout her career as ‘phenomenal.’

“One of my very first mentors was an Army LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) whom I worked for in DIA,” said Dempsey. “He was tremendous in being able to help me navigate the institution, but also in helping me see myself and how I’m coming across.”

Dempsey noted that it isn’t just important to be a mentor, but to take seriously the responsibility of providing feedback – which is a skill all successful professionals should have. Great mentors provide critical, and yet constructive feedback.

Making Mentorship Happen at Every Level

While Dempsey values mentorship personally, her company also has a reputation for promoting mentorship.

“Booz Allen has tremendous mentorship programs, and we’re evaluated on how seriously we take those relationships,” said Dempsey. “I’ve benefited from being here, where mentorship is an expectation at all levels.”

She said mentorship wasn’t just critically important for improving performance, but for instilling Booz Allen’s unique culture. If you’re not able to embrace the culture, you can’t be successful – and mentors play an important role in imparting culture on to the next generation, she said. When it comes to highly in demand fields such as STEM, mentorship can also help attract new talent to the workforce.

“Lack of women in STEM is a huge issue,” said Dempsey. “I don’t have a degree in a STEM field, but I have worked my entire career in advanced technology areas. We need mentors for men, women, minorities, and we need to help people see themselves in a STEM career in government. Women need to step up to mentor young STEM employees and students…STEM mentoring is invaluable in my opinion.”

Dempsey made the point that mentorship is critical at all levels. When Booz Allen matches employees with mentors, they look to establish relationships that will benefit both the junior and senior level professional. And mentorship is useful not just for professionals, but for college students and young people considering which career path to choose. That’s where organizations such as INSA can play a role.

“You gain from being associated with an organization that has insight and access to senior leaders, to see what success looks like,” she noted. “INSA does a phenomenal job in showing what that looks like…how important those functions are.”

Dempsey said one of her mentoring relationships was set up by a tenacious young woman who approached her after at INSA event. She was prepared with a list of questions she wanted answered, and Dempsey agreed to mentor her. Dempsey said that woman had gone on to a more senior role in government, but they continued to meet – and it is a relationship that continues to benefit both.

Making Mentorship Work

Having a mentor is good advice all professionals hear. Making it a reality can be more difficult. Dempsey’s comments included a few nuggets of advice worth considering.

  1. Good mentoring promotes office diversity.

Dempsey noted that early on, there were few women she could look to in her chain of command. She appreciated those men who reached out. She advised women in similarly male-dominated industries to not be afraid to approach men in strategic positions and seek out their advice. She noted that men and women need to appreciate the strengths the other brings to the table – mentoring relationships that cross gender and racial lines help promote thought diversity within an organization.

  1. Look for a company who values mentorship.

Booz Allen Hamilton is a company who takes mentorship seriously. While professionals should still be proactive in seeking out mentors based on rapport and informal relationships, having a formal program to promote mentoring is certainly an advantage. If you’re looking for a company you can make a long-term relationship with, ask them how they promote mentoring.

  1. Mentorship is a recruiting strategy.

Mentoring relationships don’t have to exist only with professionals in the same company or organization. Employers should note that encouraging time to build mentoring relationships can help build your talent pool. Encouraging professionals within your company to reach out to local universities – particularly to students in coveted STEM programs – will likely pay off with great hires.

  1. Mentorship can be formal or informal.

Sometimes, a mentoring program involves meeting regularly with someone in your chain of command, Dempsey noted. But at other times, it could just be getting coffee occasionally with a professional you admire. Whether the relationship is formal or informal, if you’re the ‘mentee,’ make sure you come prepared – with questions, observations or ideas.

  1. No, you don’t have time to mentor.

This may be one of the greatest fallacies of mentorship – those who mentor must not have enough ‘work’ on their plates, or they’re professionals in full time management roles. Not at all true, said Dempsey, who described the winners of the INSA Achievement Award for mentorship as “superb professionals in their own right.” She said these are people who have “an awful lot on their plate, but consider it a privilege to mentor others.” No one has ‘time’ to mentor. But many people make the choice to make the time, and for professionals at both sides of the relationship, it’s time worth taking.

If mentorship is a missing element of your career, now may be no better time to reach out. As Dempsey says, “It’s a phenomenal gift that busy people give to others.”

Have you benefited from an outstanding mentor? Nominate him or her for Joan Dempsey Mentorship Award today at www.insaonline.org/Achievement.”  

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.