How to make mentoring part of your leadership culture

Are you nurturing your organization’s next round of leaders? One CIO shares how mentorship impacted his career, and how he makes it pay off in his own organization
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Tom Peters is often quoted: “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” But that doesn’t occur by happenstance. Much like business strategy, digital transformation, and cost optimization, creating leaders requires diligence and forethought.

When I started my career, I had a difficult time finding an experienced technologist who would help me grow my career. (Luckily, years later, I would have great mentors such as Jay Ferro.) But early on, I had many questions and few people willing to help me find the answers.

[ For more wisdom from CIO Jason James, read also: 3 ways to adapt talent strategies as job hopping and ghosting grow. ]

Many of the technology leaders I knew were seemingly unapproachable and showed little desire to teach or mentor. I went to my first mentor and non-technologist, my now late father, and asked his input. His sage advice was to look for people I respected, regardless of their career choice, and learn from them.

That proved incredibly valuable, but I was still disappointed that many technologists were not mentoring. I vowed that I would be different, given the opportunity. I would remain approachable and help anyone within my IT organization who wanted to grow their career.

How I made mentoring an IT strategy

When I was appointed CIO of Optima Healthcare Solutions, I made sure there was an opportunity for anyone in the IT department to have an option for mentoring. We had technical training programs that focused on technologies and methodologies such as cloud, containerization, and agile. This new program would focus on practical and pragmatic advice for career development, with a heavy focus on soft skills.

I am not a fan of assigning someone a mentor.

I introduced Mentorship Mondays: I dedicate two hours of my schedule every Monday afternoon to provide mentoring to anyone within our IT organization who requests it.

Let me stress – they must request it. I am not a fan of assigning someone a mentor. I have been in larger organizations where I was assigned a mentor. In every case, it felt forced. This program has dedicated hours, similar to a professor’s posted office hours. Meetings are one-on-one and last around 10-15 minutes. These are the basic rules:

  1. If you want to be mentored, you must ask for it.
  2. The program focuses on individualized leadership and career development exercises.
  3. Feedback and progress reports are not shared with direct managers or HR.
  4. You must do the work.

Prior to creating a formalized IT mentoring program, I spoke to many executives I knew in the C-Suite and asked how they viewed mentoring. Not surprisingly, most executives expressed that mentoring had been impactful within their own career. Accountemps, a Robert Half company, found that 86 percent of CFOs believed that having a mentor is somewhat or very important for career development – yet only 26 percent of workers have a mentor.

Results: Talent retention amid transformation challenges

To date, IT has had the lowest attrition rate of any department within the company.

I haven’t done a cost-benefit analysis for running the program, and frankly, I don’t need to as the results are evident. To date, our IT department has had the lowest attrition rate of any department within the company. Considering current IT market conditions, that has translated to hundreds of thousands in annual savings in recruiting fees (much to the dismay of our recruiting partners).

Those people in the program become extremely engaged within their own teams. They are the first ones to step up for new projects and drive change across the company. All participants have been instrumental in the success of our digital transformation projects.

In fact, we now view mentorship as just one aspect of digital transformation. Many digital transformation projects take three to five years to complete. Having attrition in key roles during that timeframe can negatively impact projects with delays and budget overruns.

Create your own Mentorship Mondays

I stay constantly excited about this program. Now in its second year, it is undergoing tweaks and changes to challenge participants. I’m not a career expert, but sharing my own career failures and triumphs may inspire the next generation of IT leaders to later help others wanting to grow their own career.

I encourage all CIOs to introduce similar mentoring programs within their own organizations. Having engaged leaders on your team starts with you engaging with your team. Perhaps, like me, you will find that your own leadership development starts by deciding to help and empower the next generation of leaders.

[ Leaders, do you want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our free resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Jason James is CIO of Net Health. He has led IT operations for fast-growth technology companies for over twenty years.