External Mentorship

By Amy Hurd, Bobby Herakovich, and Tammy Hoggatt
Photo Courtesy Of Champaign Park District

It’s no secret that change is a staple in the parks and recreation profession. The current economic climate, the retirement of baby boomers, and the significant changes in local, state, and federal mandates governing parks and recreation agencies are continually impacting the profession in myriad ways. With jobs being downsized, vacant positions going unfilled, and government regulations changing, training and development programs are important components of a seamless delivery of service to the community. It is no longer sufficient to send staff members to local workshops or to a state conference and then expect them to stay current on the rapidly occurring changes in the profession. New and innovative training and development opportunities need to be implemented to keep staff members up-to-date and continuing to grow professionally. One such innovation is external mentorship.


Succession-Development Program
The Champaign (Ill.) Park District (CPD) found itself in an interesting situation in which 17 percent of the staff would be retiring in the next 5 years. Concern over the loss of institutional knowledge and the resulting need for newly skilled staff members sparked implementation of a Succession-Development Program to enable members to address future needs of the agency. Succession planning is a major undertaking in identifying and preparing suitable employees to assume key positions within the organization (Rothwell, 2005). A joint program between Illinois State University and the park district has established a mentoring program to enhance competencies of select staff members, either working for the agency or any subsequent agencies. (A detailed description of the succession-planning process can be found in the February 2011 issue of PRB, “ Connect The Dots ,” Boudreau and Hurd, 2011).

Given CPD’s dedication to continuing education, cooperative learning, and planning for the future, mentoring became a logical and instrumental part of the Succession-Development Program. Mentoring programs include peer mentoring, supervisory mentoring, group mentoring, and distance mentoring, among others. Traditional mentoring normally involved the transfer of knowledge from a senior staff member to a junior one--“I will teach you everything I know.” This earlier approach is outdated and generally ineffective. A quality mentorship program is one in which knowledge and skills are built to help the mentee become better at a current job and enhance one’s skills for the future. This outcome-based approach helps the mentees “learn what they need to learn to be successful.” The mentor can also facilitate a means to help the mentee learn skills beyond those of the mentor.

In order to select the appropriate mentor, employees go through a thorough assessment to determine their strengths and weaknesses. This includes a self-assessment, and a 360-degree assessment by the supervisor, peers, and staff members the individual supervises. The data provides a clear profile of strength and growth areas, and leads to a development plan for each employee. The plan contains goals and specific objectives, the resources needed, and a timeline by which to accomplish the objectives.

Mentors were selected for mentees based on their goals. The uniqueness of this mentorship program was that many of the mentors were external to the agency, with several outside the parks and recreation profession. This was done for several reasons:

  • There were not enough internal mentors to meet the needs of the mentees.
  • The mentees would be given an outside, big-picture perspective.
  • The mentees could be held accountable for learning skills not already present in the agency.

External mentors came from the following agencies:

  • Champaign County Forest Preserve District
  • Decatur Park District
  • Urbana Park District
  • The City of Champaign
  • The Office of Park and Recreation Resources at the University of Illinois.

A great combination of mentee and mentor occurred when the CPD accounting manager was paired with the Decatur Park District chief financial officer. The former was about to bid banking services, and the latter had recently gone through the same process, so was able to provide insight and review of the accounting manager’s Request for Proposals. They were partnered because of the chief financial officer’s experience and knowledge in directing a finance department, which is the position the accounting manager is seeking.

Employees in the program are expected to meet with their mentors for 2 hours per month for approximately 1 year, though it is expected some long-term friendships will emerge. The mentor relationships have resulted in several planned and unplanned outcomes:

  • Employees in the program express that they feel more “valued” by the agency.
  • Supervisors often question others about what they are doing and learning, and have exhibited some professional jealousy.
  • The external mentors are learning some new skills, so both agencies benefit. For example, CPD will be hosting Urbana Park District’s grounds crew to teach the group about ballfield irrigation-maintenance techniques, and CPD will be assessing the needs of Urbana’s ballfields.
  • The overall pool of knowledge, skills, and abilities at the park district has and continues to increase with the Succession-Development Program. CPD will have better-prepared employees to step into other jobs within the district should position vacancies occur.

Suggestions For Success

  • Assign someone in the agency to oversee the mentoring program. He/she can facilitate the relationships and remove obstacles that arise.
  • Both the mentor and mentee must be totally committed to the program and establish a relationship to help achieve the goals of the development plan.
  • Clearly outline the expectations of both the mentor and the mentee so each knows the responsibilities and the commitment needed in the program.
  • Employees must be flexible and able to multi-task in order to meet their workload as well as find time to work with their mentor.
  • Some supervisors are insecure about their employees’ involvement, and want to keep current. Having an open line of communication will enhance understanding and acceptance.
  • The mentees must be held accountable by their agency. Six-month and annual evaluations should examine the progress made on these goals and objectives.

Training and development opportunities can be expensive and sometimes cost-prohibitive. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the time and resource commitment will achieve the desired results. External mentorships are one method that is relatively inexpensive, and serves as a personalized training and development tool specifically tailored to meet the individual and agency needs. Looking beyond your own agency opens many new opportunities to learn skills that may not have been possible with internal mentors in the agency and the field.


Boudreau, D. and Hurd, A.R. (February 2011). “Connect the Dots: Developing Talent Through Succession Planning.” Parks & Rec Business. 9, 7, 52-53.

Rothwell, W. J. (2005). Effective Succession Planning. New York: Amacom.

Amy R. Hurd , Ph.D., CPRP, is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation at Illinois State University. She can be reached at 309-438-5557 or arhurd@ilstu.edu.

Bobbie Herakovich is the Executive Director at the Champaign Park District. She can be reached at Bobbie.H@cparkdistrict.com or 217-819-3819.

Tammy Hoggatt is the Human Resources Manager at the Champaign Park District. She can be reached at Tammy.Hoggatt@cparkdistrict.com or 217-398-2550.