Guiding hands

IT professionals who have to juggle multiple projects but have too few hands and face too many demands from upper management sometimes drop the ball when it comes to mentoring. "We're all too busy," says Tom Aikens, a vice president and general manager within the IT business group at McKesson HBOC Inc., a pharmaceutical and health care supplier in Lake Mary, Fla. "But when you take the time to mentor, it's amazing what you can get out of it."

Aikens is currently mentoring three junior members of his team on a regular basis as part of a formal mentoring program within IT.

"We meet one-on-one for an hour about every three weeks," he says. "And that is a negligible amount of time over a calendar year."

Even that makes a difference, Aikens says, because it gives his mentorees regular access to his thought processes and suggestions.

"I have more assurance that when they're dealing with their staff, peers or even my customers, their actions are going to be in line with where I'm trying to drive the business," he says.

Others find mentoring is a way to ensure that IT has a seat at the table when it comes to building key business strategy.

"I absolutely carve out the time for mentoring," says Bob Barone, senior vice president of IT and operations and CIO at Nashville-based Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). He says he tries to act as a mentor for every member of his staff, both at the middle management and entry levels, and that he makes himself available for anyone who might need guidance.

"It's extremely important because of the general lack of acceptance of IT as a business force within most organizations. IT types are usually perceived as the people who run the computers and that's it. To get past that perception, I try to mentor my people on the political and business side."

Aikens says he focuses on three major issues, primarily aimed at improving the mentorees' people skills. These include brainstorming ways to approach hot-button issues, providing constructive feedback on the mentoree's interaction with management and peers and dealing with differences in the way staffers and others approach projects.

"The people skills are what I try to concentrate on the most," Aikens says. "I try to teach them that you get more done by working with others than by going around them or through them. That's an area I think a lot of technical people need help in."

As with most things IT, there's a right way and a wrong way to mentor. One common pitfall is to be too protective of employees, seasoned mentors say.

"You can't save them from going through everything you went through," says Jay Abel, CIO at Viata Online Inc., a Honolulu-based online travel and reservations company. "It may sound cold, but sometimes they need to make their own mistakes."

Abel says this strategy helps instill confidence within mentorees. "It's really important for them to develop their own sense of how to start and finish things and make their own decisions," he says. "I'm there as a guide if they have questions, but at some point, you really need to be hands-off."

BMI's Barone says he also takes a kind of sink-or-swim approach, especially when it comes to navigating IT's political waters.

"If I see they have that initial ‘bean' of political understanding, I'll put them in positions where they will be tasked to do some more political-type things and see how they do," Barone says. "It's great when you see them run with it and move up through the ranks."

But perhaps the most important part of the mentoring relationship goes beyond being an ally. Mentors need to be able to deliver constructive criticism and feedback in a tactful manner.

"I'm not there to be their friend," says Aikens. "You can't have them think you're exclusively their ally and it's OK for them to make mistakes, because there are some mistakes that just are not appropriate."

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