7 habits of highly effective IT mentors

Are you wisely grooming future IT leaders? CIOs share advice on how to make mentorship work — for both sides
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Priming the leadership pipeline is one of the most important things CIOs can do to ensure continuity in a technology organization. Having the right talent rising through your ranks is critical, particularly in today’s hyper-competitive environment.

[ Are you known as a leader with high or low EQ? See our related story, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

However, not every IT leader may be mentoring as effectively as possible — particularly given all the other tasks on the plate of the busy CIO. We talked to CIOs and other execs to round up some important do's and don'ts for making mentorship valuable — for both sides. Consider their practical advice:

1. Do focus the relationship

“If we expect our professional careers to mature, we must be intentional about what we want help with and be clear with what we are looking for in a mentor,” says Craig K. Williams, VP & CIO for telecom networking provider Ciena. “Encourage up-and-coming leaders to identify what areas they want to develop.”

Do they want to be a more effective team leader? Give better presentations? Master negotiations? Identify people they admire in this area and take notes. Then you can work with the mentee to develop an actionable plan to developing the desired traits. “At the end of the day, support up-and-coming leaders not by forcing your own ideas,” advises Williams, “but by inspiring them to identify and develop what skills and values are important to them.”

2. Don’t limit mentoring to the IT group

“When talking to my teams or up-and-coming leaders, I place heavy importance on testing new ideas and learning and developing strong business acumen,” says Shamim Mohammad, senior VP and CIO of CarMax. Shamim pairs his IT associates with leaders in the business so they can expand their perspective and better understand how other functions operate. Such cross-functional learning relationships are valuable for most associates, not just those on a leadership track.

3. Do offer prompt, constructive feedback

In order to advance, up-and-coming IT leaders need to practice their trade. Exposing them to real situations where they can accelerate their growth and giving them space to make their own decisions is important, says Ariel Seoane, VP of professional services for Latin American software development company Belatrix Software.

Nothing will stunt development at all levels quicker than lack of feedback on one’s weaknesses.

You may want to have them present to the CEO and the board of executives, for example. What’s critical in these situations is learning and adjusting. “The most important thing a mentor can do is to give feedback as instantly as possible,” says Chuck Gray, consultant and CIO Practice Group leader of executive placement firm Egon Zehnder. “Development programs and job rotations are important, but so is exposure to different situations and stakeholders. A mentor who is committed to feedback – both positive and constructive – can make all the difference in polishing the edges of rising leaders,” he says.

Lack of actionable criticism is the biggest mistake technology leaders make with their most promising people, according to Paul Ponzeka, managing director of engineering for IT services provider Abacus Group.  “Nothing will stunt development at all levels quicker than zero or non-constructive feedback on one’s weaknesses,” he says.

4. Don’t be a know-it-all

When approached by rising talent for advice or an answer, “Never be afraid to say ‘I don’t know,’” says Patrick Foxhoven, CIO and vice president of emerging technologies at cloud security company Zscaler. “No one can have deep expertise in all areas. Acknowledging that and having a desire to dive deeper and learn more, either from other colleagues or research, is never a negative.”

In fact, you can model appreciation for learning and curiosity – critical leadership traits. “Never focus on just the technically correct or factual correct answer to a problem,” Foxhoven says. “While technical or analytical minds like to deal in binary absolutes, the reality is that there can be a lot of grey in IT.” It’s valuable to help would-be IT leaders recognize and embrace ambiguity and encourage collaboration and compromise, he says.

5. Do encourage failure

If you want to develop transformational IT leaders who can deal with constant change, you want to help them develop critical thinking and out-of-the-box thinking, says Dr. Flavio Villanustre, VP of technology and head of HPCC Systems at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. Villanustre encourages employees to constantly challenge the status quo and provides leadership opportunities that let them try new solutions and learn from what works – and what doesn’t.

“Fear of failing typically leads to technology debt and stagnation in the long run,” Villanustre says, “so mentors should acknowledge that failures are an expected part of employee development.”  (See our related article,  Why agile leaders must move beyond talking about "failure.")

6. Don’t measure progress with technology metrics alone

 “Limiting performance metrics to just IT goals hinders growth opportunities for high performers,” says Katie Ross, a recruiting partner at Heller Search Associates, an executive search firm specializing in CIOs and other senior IT roles. If you measure an IT professional on meeting deadlines and technical skills, you’re essentially creating an order-taker rather than a leader.

“But if you tie performance to the rest of the organization, you are creating an opportunity for this person to think in business terms and to find solutions to help the business grow,” Ross says. “For example, for your sales IT organization, tying IT goals to sales performance forces IT leaders to think how to better streamline sales operations for maximum growth and implement better tools to ease pain points of selling. It forces collaboration between IT and the sales group."

7. Do invest in soft skills

Some IT top performers achieve their status through their technology prowess, setting up a personal challenge, says Mark Onisk, chief content officer for corporate learning company Skillsoft. “This creates a dynamic where you have technically proficient people advancing quickly who may have never been in a leadership role at any level.”

CIOs play a critical role in creating opportunities for people to develop their core leadership skills, like business writing or conflict resolution. Without this investment in the future, CIOs will find their leadership pipelines running dry.

“All too often, bright young IT professionals get lost in their focus on driving their technical skillset, with near zero developmental focus on necessary skills for the executive level, such as interpersonal skills and relationships, and the act of managing itself,” says Abacus Group’s Ponzeka. “Make a plan for each of your direct reports, and ensure each plan focuses on development of their technical skillset, management skillset, organizational skillset, and interpersonal communications.”

Not sure how to get this done? See our related article: How to cultivate soft skills in your IT team.

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.