Managing champions

Invisible to upper management. Ignored when it came to advancement. Dene Bettmeng learned the hard way what can happen when you don't have a mentor within the upper echelons of your IT organization. "I didn't have anybody going to bat for me, and when it came time for promotions, I wasn't considered because they basically forgot I was there," Bettmeng says.

At the time, Bettmeng was reporting directly to the president of the division. "Unfortunately, the vice presidents were making the decisions, and they only considered their own staff people. I wasn't even on the list," she says.

After assessing the situation, Bettmeng came to the conclusion that she would have been high on the list if someone had thought to include her.

"I absolutely would have been considered," she says. "I just wish I'd been in regular contact with someone on the staff making these decisions."

Bettmeng, who most recently was director of worldwide operations at Denver-based J.D. Edwards & Co., but has also been an IT manager at United Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Inc.'s Sabre system, says she realized that she needed to seek out a mentor. "It really underscored the importance," she says.

IT professionals seek mentors who display qualities they wish to hone in themselves.

"A mentor is someone you admire - the way they work and make their decisions - and for me, it's important the way they handle themselves in general," says a technical support manager at a leading financial services firm who asked not to be identified. "I look to find the qualities that I'm trying to gain myself, and go from there."

Bettmeng says she agrees.

"You should definitely look for someone who you like, respect and admire. Those elements need to be there," she says. "They should also have enough influence and experience in the organization that they can help you in terms of political battles and go to bat for you when necessary."

It Takes Time

Finding such a person can take a while, especially since the best candidates may not be people with whom you have day-to-day contact.

"You don't want the mentor to be your manager," Bettmeng says. "You need to look for someone higher up in the organization, but with whom you can have almost a peer relationship. You have to be comfortable enough with them that you think of each other as peers and can speak candidly."

Once you've made the choice, approaching the mentor can be as simple as asking him to lunch. "They're usually flattered," Bettmeng says. "It might be tough to get someone to commit the time, but a good way is to take them out to lunch on a continual basis. That's a relatively easy thing to set up."

Although some organizations have formal mentoring programs that link staffers with suitable mentors, finding a mentor is usually something IT professionals do on their own, without a manager's input.

"For me, it's more casual," Bettmeng says. "I focus on someone who can help me gain the skills I need and approach them myself."

If a good mentor within your department is difficult to find, however, finding an executive coach outside the organization can help too.

"I've had an executive coach who helped me develop my leadership skills," Bettmeng says. "And a lot of times, that's all you may need. But I still felt like I needed a mentor within the organization to help me navigate the organization. I wanted someone to show me the pitfalls, so when I came forward with projects and tried to get funding, I'd have some proven strategies."

Benefits Follow Rapport

Once you've established a rapport with a mentor, the benefits, which range from tips on how to handle staffers to strategies for selling projects to upper management, usually follow immediately.

"You pick up all kinds of things that are important for a strong IT career," says Rachel Dorman, e-commerce content manager at GE Industrial Systems in Plainville, Conn. Dorman participated in GE's reverse-mentoring program, which pairs younger Web-savvy IT staffers with top executives looking to broaden their Internet skills.

"At first, it was daunting," Dorman says, referring to mentoring Lloyd Trotter, CEO and president of her division. "I was almost overwhelmed that I would have some knowledge that he didn't have."

But as time went on, Dorman says she soon found that she was picking up quite a bit from their regular monthly meetings, too.

"I bounce ideas off of him, tell him about things I'm planning to do," Dorman says. "And he tells me of business problems they're looking to solve, where maybe I can add something in terms of how to address it with the technology. It's worked out really well."

There is a major caveat in choosing a mentor, however. "You may think you've found a good mentor, with experience and influence in the organization," Bettmeng says. "But as time goes on, it becomes apparent that they don't. At that point, it's difficult to extricate yourself from the situation."

It's important that mentors have such influence because you may need them to champion your cause, Bettmeng says.

"You need a champion, especially in organizations that don't have the tools to assess people's management skills and potential, things like the 360-degree review," Bettmeng says, referring to reviews in which managers are assessed not only by their managers, but also by their staffers.

"They can't see who's doing a good job of leading their staff, so it helps if you have someone who can point it out and put your name out there," she says.

But dropping one mentor and choosing another can be dicey.

"That person is going to find out if suddenly you're not calling for lunches, especially if you've found someone else who's mentoring you," Bettmeng says. "That's why it's important to take the time up front to make sure the person you choose is the right one."

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