IT talent: 5 mentoring best practices for the hybrid work era

Mentoring IT talent looks different in a hybrid work environment. Five award-winning CIOs share their strategies
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CIOs who embrace a coaching role say that it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of their jobs. But mentoring IT talent looks different in a  hybrid work environment.

We asked CIOs who recently won the 2021 Capital CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards how they are creating opportunities for IT talent to stand out and rise to the next level - and how that has or hasn’t changed during the pandemic. The awards were presented by the Capital CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

Read on for CIO coaching and mentoring tips you can borrow on your team.

[ Want a primer on hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

Find new opportunities for transparency, collaboration, and appreciation

Global CIO of the Year

Judd Nicholson

Judd Nicholson, VP IT & CIO, Georgetown University: We have implemented a number of initiatives designed to keep employee engagement high. I personally host a weekly “bullpen” meeting, which is an informal departmental meeting where everyone in the department is welcome to join, ask questions, or present ideas. We hold these virtually and typically 70-90 percent of the department attends, depending upon the topic. Additionally, during these meetings we have begun a “kudos” portion where we relay positive customer feedback and provide an opportunity for team members to thank or congratulate each other. Recently, we invited our COO to attend and express his personal gratitude for all of the efforts of the department during the pandemic. This was a major boost in morale and motivation.

We also instituted a weekly portfolio management review, where we invite everyone in the department to review and comment on proposed projects and in-progress efforts. The purpose of this effort is to ensure that there is transparency in all of our major efforts and provide an opportunity for team members to raise issues and ideas for project/process improvement.

Because it is difficult to see in virtual meetings when individuals might be struggling or disengaged, I have asked my leadership to take note of those who are more quiet or who are not attending these open forums and to reach out to ensure that these employees have what they need to succeed. We have empowered our middle managers to meet monthly without the presence of the senior leadership. This allows them to resolve issues together, discuss challenges and make recommendations, rather than force top-down policies. I have found that these practices have resulted in ideas that I might never have thought of on my own, and have given the team a stake and ownership in the future of the department.

But the most important practice is encouraging continual expressions of gratitude. This lifts all of us up, instills pride in our team, our mission and reminds us that IT is not about technology but about using technology to help people and each other.

[ Read also: IT leadership: 5 ways for CIOs to embrace a coaching role ]

When it comes to coaching, sometimes less is more

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year

Joel Klein

Dr. Joel Klein, SVP & CIO, University of Maryland Medical System: I think we all get the fundamental remote/in-person challenges prompted by the pandemic. Every organization – even every team within every organization – is different, and there’s obviously no uniform solution. We have to come back to fundamental values and experiences: what keeps our work reasonably flexible and nimble, and what keeps our team members engaged, excited, and safe.

For some of our team members, I only need to say, “What do you think the right goal should be?” For others, I have to say, “Here’s our goal; how do you think we can get there?” For still others, I have to turn it up further: “Here’s what we need to do; where do you think we can be by next week?” I have learned over the years that the more I can let talented staff just “run with it,” the more sustainable our work becomes. A famous drummer described this idea as “the minimum necessary rhythm” to keep a song alive, and that’s the phrase I always think of when I remind myself to sit on my hands more.

Embrace failure on the path to greatness

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Chas Shaffer

Chas Shaffer, CIO, Guidehouse: I am a fervent believer that you’re only as good as the people around you. Build a strong team, focus on the people, and establish a culture of collaboration with the inherent sense that we are all in this together: “Rising tides lift all boats.”

This has never been more true than over the past year and a half. In a hybrid environment, it’s vital to make people feel connected and to create a sense of community. With many employees geographically scattered, I make it a top priority to be visible and consistently find ways to foster communication, teamwork, and division of time between the workplace and home.

Part of this is being able to empower your team to take calculated risks, and knowing that it’s OK to fail. Being able to fail, and act swiftly if you do, is what helps build resilience and in turn success. Oftentimes IT professionals run into analysis paralysis – but you need to be able to push the envelope. No one will excel if the team doesn’t excel together. If you give your team the tools and the authority to do their jobs, great things can happen.

[ Want more tips? See Hybrid work: 7 ways to enable asynchronous collaboration and Hybrid work: 6 more ways to enable asynchronous collaboration. ]

Model inclusion at all levels of leadership

Large Corporate CIO of the Year

Scott Midkiff

Dr. Scott Midkiff, VP IT & CIO, Virginia Tech: As we emerge from the pandemic, we owe it to ourselves to leverage what we have learned and carry forward new best practices. We have demonstrated that we can work effectively in a mostly remote environment, and this presents an opportunity to provide a flexible future of work, leading to benefits in recruiting, employee engagement and wellbeing, and organizational effectiveness.

But, the new hybrid work environment will present new challenges when compared to both the old mostly-onsite and recent mostly-remote models. One of our IT organization’s core values is inclusion, and there is new importance on how we include remote, onsite, and hybrid workers on our team. Leadership, at all levels, must model inclusion for our employees. We must leverage technology to create meeting and collaboration environments that engage and include all employees regardless of location. And, we must provide training across the organization on topics including hybrid meetings, tracking work, and performance management that explicitly considers our new hybrid work environment.

Focus on career development from day one

Corporate CIO of the Year

John Suess

Jack Suess, VP & CIO, University of Maryland Baltimore County: Higher education, at least UMBC, is unique in that we take a very long-term view with staff. Because staff stay at UMBC a long time, often for their career, hiring and managing career progressions is crucial to our success. Our hiring practices focus on hiring great student employees and bringing some of the best on as full-time staff. We have done a great job of diversifying our student employees, and we are using this to help diversify our full-time staff. In hiring, we look for people that are intellectually curious, self-motivated, hold themselves accountable, and are invested in the mission of changing lives through the power of education.

We strongly encourage employees to get their advanced degrees and offer them professional development through our higher education associations. As part of working at a university we want our employees to be engaged with and take advantage of the cultural, intellectual, and community activities found at a research university. Through these efforts, our IT staff become part of helping DoIT engage with the campus and the broader higher education community. This commitment to staff has resulted in an average yearly retention for IT staff exceeding 98 percent.

I have a great team and have been mentoring one of my staff members who I believe will be an outstanding CIO in higher education. Over the last two years I’ve pulled him into many meetings I have with my other Vice Presidents and President. This summer, I got to benefit from that mentoring when a family member had a health issue and I had to take off work for 5 weeks to care for them. This staff member stepped in and did an amazing job functioning as CIO, which allowed me to know that I didn’t have to rush back and could focus on my family.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and editor for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  

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