IT Leaders Leveraging Mentors for Career Advancement

May 13, 2010

Pam Baker

Mentors have taken on a new role in the CIO’s career building toolkit. Not so long ago mentorship was little more than a line-item on a resume; now it is a career lifeline. At first glance, this trend reversal from mentor to mentee appears to be a shocking affront to the old ‘don’t let them see you sweat’ executive mentality.

However, this surprisingly fresh approach effectively confronts an age-old problem in leadership: Irrelevancy.

“If an environment changes, and it does, resident experts become obsolete. Do not become obsolete,” advises Wayne Mekjian, head of Information Services at Wells Fargo Technology and Operations Group. Wells Fargo is an international, diversified financial services company with $1.2 trillion in assets.

“Sharing what each of you have learned, experienced and worked through is a great reflection exercise and process to go through,” he said. “Re-living decisions, situations, mistakes, and successes can better prepare and position our CIOs for their current and future roles.”

It is a mistake, however, to only consider mentors who can help keep your skills and ideas up-to-date. Consider the political value of mentors, as well. For example, many a IT leader has had a great idea voted down or ignored. Yet, an IT leader is judged by performance metrics despite how many times his hands were tied and his ideas tossed.

“After many years as CTO and CIO at the highest levels of government and industry I've coined what I call Hanson's law: ‘No idea or initiative that emanates from the CIO/CTO office will be embraced by the operations community',” laughs J. Greg Hanson, COO for Criterion Systems and a former CIO for the U.S. Senate.

The successful CIO/CTO, said Hanson, must work with the COO to get the operations community to embrace and execute his ideas as their own. In fact, to get ahead the CIO must be the COO's “best friend". The bottom line is “[a]ny CIO/CTO, no matter how experienced, can benefit from a mentorship under the COO because CIOs and CTOs who are successful are able to think like COOs," said Hanson.

A mentor can help you avoid myopic views, antiquated tactics and career stagnation no matter how much experience and accolades you can lay claim to. “Sometimes we get too caught up in our own silos, both being mentored and mentoring can force us to step out of our own comfort zones and view the bigger picture across the organization,” said Mekjian.

Leveraging the mentoring relationship means letting go of expectations, however.

If you are a mentee with a set agenda, you’ll miss out on advantages you may not have anticipated. Mekjian cites a current mentee as a prime example of this phenomenon. He declines to name names citing the confidentiality that exists in a mentoring relationship as “one of the strongest advantages to the relationship.” This particular person was strong technically but needed exposure, experience and polish to move up the executive ladder. “However, over the last two and a half years, this individual has blossomed as a technical leader,” said Mekjian. “No longer using (IT) acronyms to communicate, this individual has focused on bringing value to the customer, stockholder, community and team member and is continuing to develop business acumen which has led to larger and larger roles with every passing year.”

Another of Mekjian’s current mentees is far less shy about stepping forward. Kristina Draper, chief application officer for Information Services at Wells Fargo Technology and Operations Group, is quick to credit Mekjian and a long line of mentors before him. Looking back, she says one of her most significant professional milestones was driven by a mentoring relationship.

“In 2004, after serving in Wells Fargo’s retail banking division, a mentor encouraged me to make a lateral move into the Information Services group,” she recounts. “This was a significant move in my career, one that I was initially very hesitant about; however, I took the leap of faith and as a result, found significant success within the group.”

This internal transition also resulted in a new mentoring relationship for Draper; this time with Mekjian. “Being open to recommendations and guidance outside of one’s comfort zone from other high-visibility mentors can certainly open one’s mind to alternative thinking, and may uncover new ideas or approaches that may not have been brought to light previously,” she concludes.

While it certainly helps to have a mentor inside the same company, to achieve the best competitive edge you may need to seek mentors outside of the company as well.

“The experienced CIO recognizes that their role is to bring the right knowledge and experience to bear on the right technology issue or opportunity,” said Robert Fronberry, practice director of Technology Services at Patina Solutions. “Increasingly, external resources must be used to help guide and support the CIO in their efforts to deliver technology thought leadership to their company."

Mentors are often the cheapest and fastest means to improve your skills and maneuver through the political or industry waters. Another big plus is all the one-on-one face time that no university ― and few professional trainers ― can match. However, it is up to you to pick the right mentor and to get the most from the time you spend working together. “Leverage what you learn from your mentee or mentor, stretch beyond your silo, obtain a bigger-picture view, whether it is inside your own organization, outside your organization, company wide or industry wide,” advises Mekjian.

Remember also that there’s no rule about how many mentors you can work with simultaneously. It is quite common for CIOs today to work with several at a time. The best practice is to always have at least one working with you at any given moment.

“Never stop learning,” advises Mekjian. “Mentorship, either as mentor or mentee, is an excellent vehicle to continue learning.”

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making.

Tags: Baker, mentors, IT leaders, career advancement, coaching,

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