Five Mentors Every CIO Needs

By Patty Azzarello

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Compared to people who have mastered the art of getting help from others, if you rely too much on your talents and energy alone, you are at an extreme disadvantage. Mentors can have a bigger impact on your success than virtually anything outside your own efforts.


There are five types of mentors that every CIO needs. Mentors that help with:



       Air Cover





Let's start with the first one and go from there:




Where do you get your ideas? Who challenges your thinking in a positive way? What fuels your imagination? Big imagination is required to do your job. As a CIO your success depends on coming up with new, more efficient, and business game-changing ways to use technology. How will you think of them all?


Most of my biggest successes have started from other people’s ideas, challenges or inspiration. Whether it’s how you solve problems, or create new opportunities, you can’t do it if you never think of it! Mentors can help a lot, because they typically have a very different perspective. To fuel your imagination, look for mentors who are:


       A CEO or a board member from another company – you need a steady personal flow of input from this level to keep your thinking at a high enough level. Because you typically deal with so much complexity it’s easy to lose focus on how IT needs to drive business outcomes.


       IT people from completely different industries – for example: one supply chain manager at a technology company I know, looked to the produce industry for lessons in efficiency. Other industries solve problems in different ways, so you can get a competitive advantage in your industry if you think of applying it first. Ford’s great invention, the production line, was actually taken from slaughter houses.

       Talented business people in other functions – you get ideas not only for leadership techniques, but “man on the street” insights about how business people work and what makes IT good or annoying.


Air Cover


Let’s face it, your budget is big and your function is largely misunderstood. You need someone from your team in the room when you are not there to defend your positions. And there are lots of discussions that go something like “why do we spend so much money in IT?”, or “why isn’t IT more productive?” You need someone in those circles who know you, care about you, and will defend your honor (and your budget).


A mentor, by definition cares about you and your success, and having someone higher up in the organization who can advocate on your behalf when you are not in the room is critical. If you don’t report to the CEO, you need a mentor that is on the executive team in addition to your boss. If you report to the CEO, try to develop a direct relationship with a board member.

This will make sure you are not alone when critical IT decisions are made.




CIOs have so much legacy to deal with, and such a big backlog of requests, it’s easy to get so tied up in what you are doing, that you lose sight of the reality of changing business conditions. Some specific reality issues for CIO’s are outsourcing and globalization, mobility, and Web 2.0 business adoption.


It would be useful to look for mentors who:


       Run an outsourcing company, i.e., understand “the enemy”. What do they do well and struggle with? What are their agendas?

       Someone who has successfully implemented globalization, cost reductions and maintaining quality service – if you can drive the plan, you can survive it.

       Someone in their 20’s who is a master at social networking – you will run the risk of others running circles around you, if you don’t follow the energy here.




You are most vulnerable when you are not connected. You have less ability to execute if you do not have a strong network. Sure, you need to be building your personal network directly, but mentors can expand your personal and professional network exponentially; not just in terms of size but of usefulness.


A mentor who has a bigger, different network can help you in countless ways. Make sure to ask your mentors to connect you with others, and then be generous and be appreciative. Offer to help them as well. And for all the places that you qualify as a mentor, make sure you mentor others.




Finally, you can’t have too many smart people in your life. Spending time with people you learn from is a big part of creating success. What are your personal learning agendas? What learning agendas do you have for your organization? What do you want to be better at next year than you are now? How do you plan to get there?


Find people who are ahead of you, either in their career, their business, or in the maturity of their IT organization. Learn what they do. Learn what they think. Bring them into your staff meetings as special guest stars.


Look for people who are:


       10-15 years ahead of you career-wise – they can help you navigate the land mines and work through the unspoken rules.

       2-3 phases ahead of you in IT maturity – it’s critical to see where you want to be.


       Work at an order of magnitude bigger scope or geography – learn processes and techniques that help you do more, or do better with less.


Getting Mentors


Don’t get hung up on the term “mentor”. Just buying a coffee for someone you can learn from, and getting the benefit of there time is the important part. However, if you can formalize it to the extent that you both acknowledge that they care about your success over time, the benefits multiply. So, when you come across a relationship with a potential mentor that sparks, close the deal!


Check list: Do you have your 5 mentors?


       A board member or CEO

       A leader in a different industry

       A twenty-something, web 2.0 guru

       A master networker

       A career guide 15 years your senior


Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager ever at HP at the age of 33. She ran HP's $1B OpenView software business at the age of 35, and was the CEO of an IT software company, Euclid Software at the age of 38. Today, Patty is CEO of Azzarello Group, www.AzzarelloGroup.com a unique services organization that helps companies develop and motivate their top performers, execute their strategies, and grow their business.