FORT PICKETT, Va. — After a year of overcoming challenges in order to learn from each other, the Virginia Department of Military Affairs’ first-ever mentorship program class of mentors and mentees graduated during a ceremony Feb. 25, 2021, at Fort Pickett, Virginia.
Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, and retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, the DMA Chief Operations Officer, both spoke during the ceremony, which recognized the program’s eight mentors and 10 mentees.
“It’s about relationships, and this is just the beginning,” said Williams, who served as a mentor during the inaugural class. “It’s a chance to get out there and feel like you’ve got that opportunity to talk to leaders, and to try and share some thoughts and ideas in an environment where you feel free to do that and have a comfort factor.”
The program was the first of its kind of the DMA, and started with recognizing the need for the program long before it ever began.
“This all started about two years ago with our strategic planning process,” said Mercer. “We started thinking about the things we wanted to do. A lot of it came from staff input, from surveys and getting out and talking to folks.”
Mercer and other DMA leaders, including retired Command Sgt. Maj. Tim White, the DMA instructor and trainer, spent many months studying other mentoring programs and fine-tuning the plan for the DMA’s inaugural class.
“It took about a year. We stole a lot of ideas from UVA, because they have a good mentor program. In the end, we’ve done what we wanted to do,” said Mercer. “The real intent of the program was to develop and identify future talent and management, and to grow professional relationships and organizational culture. I think we’ve done that, despite the COVID disruptions.”
The program officially kicked-off with a meet and greet between potential mentors and mentees, all of whom met with each other in short interactions, only a few minutes each, similar to a “speed dating” event. The participants used those interactions to figure out the best pairings for the next year.
Shortly after matches were made and mentoring was to begin, a global pandemic had other ideas.
“As soon as we started a year ago, we met, we’re all excited, then COVID hit and everything kind of went you know where,” said Mercer during the graduation ceremony. “For about two months we kind of lost it, then we got back on track. We still had a good year. I think we did pretty well, considering it was the first time out of the gate and COVID. I think it went well and hopefully everybody here agrees and you got something out of it.”
The program leaders will take lessons learned during this first class and apply them to the second class, which begins in March 2021.
“We had to start somewhere. We didn’t know COVID was going to happen,” said White. “So now, for 2.0 when we start the new class, we know everything we need to adjust and we’ll be good to go.”
Mercer explained some of what made this class, and will make subsequent classes, successful.
“Both the mentor and mentee have to be committed to do the homework and prep for their time together. If you don’t, that time will not be as well-spent. You’ve got to put some time into it to do it right,” explained Mercer. “You’ve got to have open communication and accessibility, both ways. You’ve got to set goals together. You’ve got to have some passion and inspiration about what you’re doing. You’ve got to have a caring relationship - mutual respect and trust. There needs to be an exchange of knowledge.”
That sharing of knowledge doesn’t just flow from the mentor to their mentee.
“I probably grew up too a little bit in this program, with learning a few things and making me reflect with my mentee, so that was good for me too as a mentor,” said Mercer, who mentored two DMA employees, Tanisha Roberts and Beth Nelson. “I had a lot of fun with them. I looked forward to getting together with both of them.
“For example, one of the things I learned - I had no idea Tanisha had an interest in Human Resources. Because of that, we adjusted on the fly and I had her shadow the HR team one day and she really had a great experience. That’s the kind of stuff you can do with this program.”
Roberts was grateful for Mercer’s tutelage and guidance.
“The mentorship program has given me the upward mobility as well as growth to seek the human resources management field. I have worked for the DMA for ten years, but I didn’t know how DMA operated from an HR perspective on a daily basis,” said Roberts. “Given this opportunity, the mentorship program opened my eyes to broader opportunities and has encouraged me to seek other mentoring relationships in the near future.”
Although officially graduated, this class of mentors and mentees was encouraged to continue their relationships beyond the end of the program.
Class 2.0, which will operate through early 2022, is beginning in March. Any DMA state employee with interest in becoming a mentor or mentee can find program information at https://vko.va.ngb.army.mil/dma/Pages/mentor.aspx.