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How to Find and Keep a Mentoring Partner

How to Find and Keep a Mentoring Partner

"Five years ago I was living in a van."

Not exactly the words you'd expect from a CEO. Brian Feucht, now the top dog at Hire Quality, a small but rapidly growing staffing and technology company in Chicago, started out in 1995 as an entry-level marketer, fresh from graduating college in California. He bounded up the ladder to become Hire Quality's first CIO, then in late 1999 was promoted to CEO after the former chief stepped down to lead the company's technology spin-off. The two weeks Feucht camped in his 1983 GMC conversion van while looking for a job in Chicago seem like a lifetime ago. Feucht didn't have the advantage of venture capital backing to jump-start his career. What he did have were smarts, ambition, luck and a few mentors. Really good mentors. "I went after mentors who were very high up, with experience in a lot of areas," he says.

Despite all the good they did for Feucht, the word mentor is unsettling to some. Do nauseating visions of a patronizing fatherly figure, patting someone on the back and offering sage dictums from his leather-bound office chair come to mind? Things have changed--and for the better. Today, though mentors are often older and wiser veterans, it's not uncommon for people to find mentors who are their peers. In fact, even younger, less experienced workers can be valuable advisers to business veterans who need to learn how to operate in the Internet age. In keeping with these changes, organizational development folks don't like to use the term mentor so much anymore, preferring what they say are the more politically correct terms adviser or coach--even though the latter often implies a paid consultant.

No matter which word you choose, most define the term as someone who takes a vested interest in another's career development, helping her identify and achieve short- and long-term goals for growth.

But it's not a one-way street. Most people will tell you that these relationships work best when both mentor and mentee [forgive our use of this nonword for the sake of clarity] bring something to the table. Software company executive Nora Denzel has groomed rising high-tech stars in Silicon Valley for the 11 years she's been a manager. "Mentoring others has made me a much more effective manager," reflects the 37-year-old senior vice president of product operations at Legato Systems Inc. in Mountain View, California. "It keeps me in touch with what people outside the company are thinking." One of her former mentees, Helen, a software engineer who was in the middle of switching jobs at the time, helped Denzel understand what benefits and issues were important to a young recruit. Others who have mentored say giving counsel and recounting experiences reminds them of their own goals and forces them to think hard about whether they are heeding their own sound advice.

Given the mind-boggling pace of competition today, many IT execs don't do much mentoring or encourage it within their organizations--much less seek out mentors for themselves. "In my experience, they tend to be very busy trying to survive," says Dave Phillips, president of The Peer Consulting Group in Seal Beach, Calif. "Perhaps they don't recognize the need or see how they can add value," adds Phillips, a former division IS manager at Bechtel and CIO of Fluor Daniels, who now coaches CIOs. Perhaps also it's because matching mentors with mentees is no easy job, and relationships fizzle if the parties are not committed or clear on goals. And sometimes managers are just too proud or scared to ask for help. One of the most innovative and successful companies in the IT industry recently watched its own internal mentoring program collapse from lack of participation.

The following set of guidelines will help you make the most of these uniquely intimate career development relationships.

STARTING THE SEARCH

Finding an effective mentoring match is an important first step--whether it's for yourself or for one of your staff members. Where to look will depend largely on individual needs, objectives and station in life. A green twentysomething like Feucht knew he needed older, wiser execs to point out the basics of business and IT management. When he was first promoted to CIO in 1998, he attended a conference and met John Puckett, the former CIO of GTE Internetworking and now CIO at Toysmart.com. Feucht asked if he could call him for advice, and before long the two began to talk by phone on a weekly basis. "He taught me how to be a good manager and how to motivate staff," Feucht says.

Around the same time, Feucht met Rick Brennan, a long-time technology executive who now heads software startup ZoomOn in San Jose, Calif. Brennan offered to help Feucht develop a strategic vision when he noticed the young manager struggling to explain his IT infrastructure during a Q&A session at a seminar. The two still talk every couple of weeks and Feucht has even spent vacations in Colorado with Brennan and his family. "Most of my mentor relationships have started out casually, and later I decided that this is the kind of person I can learn from," he says.

With 23 years of experience in IT, John Szalewski's needs are different from Feucht's. An applications development vice president at Guarantee Life Insurance in Omaha, Neb., Szalewski seeks mentors who can help him navigate the political nuances and communications challenges that come with senior executive roles in large companies. His relationship with his current mentor Gail Smith, senior vice president of administration at Guarantee, began in 1997 during meetings Szalewski scheduled with her to gain information for various projects he was managing.

Later, their discussions evolved from the work at hand to Szalewski's desire to play better with the bigwigs in the company. The two now meet for lunch every week or two. "Gail helped me understand what the executive VPs' hot buttons were and where they stood on the issues," Szalewski explains. "This helped me in developing presentation materials and preparing for meetings in which I may be put on the spot to explain certain situations and make recommendations." As a result, sticky subjects like getting approvals for new projects or budget allocations are now easier for Szalewski to address with senior management.

At the highest level--CIOs and other top officers--it gets even tougher to find mentors because there are fewer places to look and greater political implications for looking. Many executives who have reached the top do not feel comfortable asking for help, fearing that others will think them unfit for the job, says Richard Leider, a coach to Fortune 500 CEOs and the founding partner of the Inventure Group, a Minneapolis-based executive training and development company. People in this echelon of management tend to seek trusted advisers in their circle of family and friends, or discreetly hire someone like Leider. "It's fairly covert," he says.

Yet Phillips believes it's reasonable for CIOs to find mentors in the business world. He thinks they should have two: a high-level influencer within the company and a fellow CIO in another company or industry. "You can learn a lot from bouncing ideas off people who have a different experience than you," he says. Phillips and partner Jim Sutter hold monthly CIO breakfast roundtables in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas to help facilitate networking. [CIO also hosts breakfasts for readers around the country. To participate, contact Lisa Kerber at kerber@cio.com.] FINDING YOUR MATCHIt doesn't matter so much where you find a mentor, as long as you choose someone who will push your development. "If you pick someone just like you, you'll get reinforced rather than critiqued," Phillips notes. Like many other sources, Phillips also suggests avoiding the boss. A more neutral relationship with someone outside the immediate work circle allows people to talk freely without fear of retribution or being judged.

The decision of whether to look for a mentor inside or outside the company depends on goals: if it's to climb the corporate ladder, an insider may be the best bet. But for longer-term career development, outsiders provide a valuable neutral opinion. For Feucht, working with outsiders allowed him to critique his company's own internal strategies and philosophies, and adopt new approaches. "I was able to break that [company's] thought pattern," he says.

Should the mentor and mentee come from the same industry? "To learn industry knowledge, processes and company practices, or to gain political savvy, a good mentor in the industry seems ideal," Szalewski says. On the other hand, he observes, executives from other industries are less likely to have preconceived notions or rules about how to approach problems. The adviser "may contribute a breakthrough idea that someone ingrained in the industry wouldn't have conceived," he says.

Other considerations are more personal. For instance, are women better off with female coaches? Contrary to popular opinion, some women either feel more comfortable working with men or don't take gender into consideration when looking for a mentor. But male-female relationships can be problematic, says Beth Gulas, president of WorkForce Management in Wellesley, Mass. Coworkers may raise eyebrows if a man and woman are spending regular sessions behind closed doors or at lunch, she warns. "The rumor mill can get ugly." Legato Systems' Denzel doesn't think the gender issue is a big deal. She has had male mentors and has been a mentor to men and says the only difference is women often develop closer relationships with each other through their tendency to talk about more personal issues like family.

Once you've found a good fit, there are ways to strike up a relationship without sounding like a dork. As Denzel points out, people love to talk about themselves. "If I wanted to have lunch with a CEO in the Valley, I wouldn't ask him to be a mentor. I would just express my interest in his merger strategy or whatever."

Mentors also need to be picky about whom they choose to help. "As it takes time to be a worthwhile mentor, it might be prudent to accept only those people you think have promise, or you like and relate to," Phillips recommends. While the obvious expectations of timeliness, strong communications skills, commitment and enthusiasm are all important attributes of a mentee, Denzel says she also looks for someone who embodies the same qualities as her good friends: loyalty, integrity and honesty.

SETTING THE AGENDA

Once the two parties find each other, what are the unwritten rules for working together? In truth, there are no hard-and-fast dictates except one: Both individuals have to understand the goals and expectations of the relationship upfront. It may sound like a business transaction, and in many respects it is. Mentors are busy people in important jobs and can't be bothered by a junior person who doesn't have a specific agenda. "Asking for general career direction may not be a clear enough goal," Gulas says. A better approach is to come to the table with a list of current challenges at work and a few goals for the year, such as improving relationships with direct reports. Typically, the issues that mentoring partners discuss are soft skills relating to people, emotions, culture and strategy, rather than technical skills, which can be learned from courses or books.

When the Inventure Group's Leider works with his CEO clients, the two put together a yearlong road map with two or three goals and an action plan and timetable for achieving them. For instance, the client may want to improve his relationship with the company's board and gain buy-in for a new business plan. After creating the map, Leider says the mentee should allot time every day to work on the action plan--he recommends 30 minutes--and then report on his progress at each meeting with his adviser. "The daily practice against the plan accelerates your learning curve...and it keeps your advisers happy and interested too." The action plan could include reading books, practicing presentation skills, meeting with key stakeholders or keeping a journal.

LOGISTICS DO MATTER

How often should the parties meet? Consultants advise setting a specific and short time frame: six to 12 months is reasonable, with meetings once a month or more if possible. Mentees should offer to come to the mentor's work site and have the flexibility to schedule times in the early morning or evening, Denzel says. "In general you need to make it easy for the executive," she says. "But if you establish a rapport with them, you can get unlimited time with someone who enjoys being with you."

For instance, Denzel says she's gone to charity events with some of her advisers. Getting away from the office--even for a walk at a nearby park--can help people interact more freely and creatively, and perhaps build the foundation for a deeper, long-term relationship.

Nevertheless, mentors can't always find time for face-to-face meetings. Gulas says she's seen successful relationships where the two parties conversed only by phone. However, she does have one caveat: "E-mail is my least recommended form of communication because too much is misinterpreted." Yet for some people, it can work well, and is something the parties should explore in the beginning.

BEHAVING FOR SUCCESS

You don't have to be best friends with your mentoring partner and, in fact, developing any form of social relationship is not required. However, Gulas says mentees should present themselves intelligently, show tact, be responsive to feedback, be a team player, remain open to creativity, demonstrate confidence and participate fully. For the most part, the mentor has those same obligations plus others.

No matter how busy they are, mentors who don't return phone calls or continually cancel meetings are not suited for the role. Beyond the time commitment, mentors should have an innate desire to help others. They should be good listeners, tolerant, encourage risk and expect failure, Leider says. A good coach should also look at the relationship as a chance to learn something too. "The death knell of mentoring is sermonettes. That's the mentor's viewpoint, as opposed to bringing out the natural potential in people," he says. Szalewski agrees: "At points, you may trade places and become the mentee."

MENTORING CAN FLOP

"Where it gets mucked up is when [you put your] future in the hands of someone else and you're asking them to influence others on your behalf," Leider says. In other words, do not expect a job or promotion or key contact from your adviser. That's not to say a mentor couldn't offer her mentee a job--but keep in mind that such offers can cause tension if one or both parties decides it's not a good fit. Conversely, mentors should not hit up mentees for business leads or favors.

Mentees should consider advice from their mentors and thank them (profusely) for it, but they are not obliged to take it. This is another potential sore point. "The adviser can't expect to be in control," Leider says. Hire Quality's Feucht learned this lesson when his mentor, Brennan, advised him to replace his back-end systems. To Brennan's chagrin, Feucht decided not to take the advice because he was worried about the impact the change would have on several time-sensitive projects underway. Once he explained the situation in detail, Brennan had no qualms about the matter. Ultimately, Feucht says he is accountable for his own decisions. "Mentors are not your boss, and they can't run your business for you."

Generally, coaches who push their ideas or philosophy as the gospel will not win points. "Mentors go wrong in wanting everyone to become like them," Denzel observes. "You have to listen and adjust your advice." Mentees should also remember that the relationship does not revolve solely around them. There are little things mentees can do to reciprocate, like sending an article that might help the mentor in his job.

Loose lips are another concern. Until both parties establish a level of trust with each other, it's wise to be discreet. In Silicon Valley, where it's not unheard of for companies to require employees' significant others to sign nondisclosure agreements, Denzel worries that her anecdotes of work situations will get back to former employers or coworkers. "I don't want young people in the Valley running around with my stories!"

Bottom line, these relationships are about trust. It's a good idea to draw up a few guidelines for both parties regarding time commitment, goals and confidentiality. Check in with your partner on a regular basis to see what's working and what's not. If one party blatantly violates the "contract," consider ending the relationship. Also, as several sources suggested, once two people stop learning from each other--for whatever reason--it's time to amicably part ways. Sometimes, personal values and chemistry don't mix well, or the relationship just goes stale.

Mentoring is not for the weak at heart. It requires time, nurturing and patience, and there are no guarantees of results. But if you're determined enough, mentoring will pay off in the end. Take it from Denzel, who learned the value of being proactive early in her career as an engineer at IBM. With the goal of running her division someday, she asked the division manager if she could job-shadow him for a week, and he accepted. "I was fascinated with his job--and by his trust," she recalls. "He let me sit in on meetings with him, and he really put himself out on a limb by giving me private information. He was candid, and I learned much more because of it." Ten years later, she was the division manager.

We want to know your secrets for mentoring success. Write to Senior Executive Editor Richard Pastore at rpastore@cio.com. Polly Schneider is a former senior writer at CIO.

ALTERNATIVE MENTORING

Who's on your board of directors?

The latest mentoring trend is to develop a "personal board of directors." The board is a group of three to six people you choose based on your career and personal goals. "Pick people who are good clarifiers, who listen; people who are catalysts and push for action; and others who are sages and have seen the larger playing field," says Richard Leider, a coach to Fortune 500 CEOs and founder of the Inventure Group in Minneapolis. The board can meet as a group, or individually with you, or both. Leider advises replacing board members every year or two as priorities change. The advantage? You get several points of view, and it requires a smaller time commitment from each adviser.

Can't find an adviser or someone to coach on your own? Consider an outside organization that matches mentors and those seeking them. For Margaret Porcher, vice president of data management services for I.C. System in St. Paul, Minn., a formal program was the kind of structure she needed to get motivated. Two years ago, she signed up with the local chapter of a mentoring organization called Menttium, headquartered in Bloomington, Minn. She says the program forced her to commit time to the relationship, since her employer sponsored her participation. Her boss then, the CIO of financial services provider Deluxe Corp., hoped Menttium would help Porcher make the leap from middle to senior management (which, consequently, she has). Porcher took a personality and career survey that Menttium used to match her with Judith Murphy, the CIO at United Healthcare in Minneapolis. The two worked together for a year, meeting for lunch once a month. Porcher says Murphy helped her learn how to focus better on the job and manage more effectively during chaotic situations.

In companies where internal coaches are in short supply, consider a group setting instead of one-to-one relationships. For example, five or six employees from different departments might get together with two senior managers on a regular basis to discuss topics related to career growth, says Beth Gulas, president of WorkForce Management in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "It maximizes mentors, and you get some transfer of knowledge across disciplines." -P. Schneider GET A MENTOR, BE A MENTOR Need a mentor in the IT executive profession? Want to find someone outside your company to coach? Join CIO's mentor-matching service. Visit www.cio.com/forums/executive/mentors to learn about the program and how to participate.

CHECKLIST

Find a potential mentor/mentee in

Your own company

Another company

Another industry

Conferences and other networking events

A mentor-matching service

Check for fit in

Experience

Business and personal values

Ability to commit the time

Clarity of purpose

Set agenda with

Goals and objectives

Expectations and ground rules

Communication mechanisms

Time span and

frequency of contact

Check in:

How's it working in

Meeting objectives?

Meeting commitments?

Honoring the "contract"?

MEET YOUR MATCH

Let us help you find a mentor or someone to coach It's impossible to know all there is to know about being a successful IT executive. Neither a newcomer nor a 20-year veteran has all the answers to mastering one of the hardest jobs in today's organizations. That's why there's a critical need for IT leadership mentoring and executive coaching. That need is especially great with a new generation of IT managers taking the reins as CIO and CTO. Meanwhile, veteran leaders can offer a treasure trove of hard-earned insights such as how to play the political game successfully and provide smart project leadership and the keys to motivating IT staff and managing user expectations.

Unfortunately, it's hard to find someone to work with. Even starting the search can be a challenge. We can help. CIO's new, free mentor-matching service will pair IT managers eager to learn from a veteran's war stories and wisdom with seasoned executives who want to share their ideas and advise earnest, bright professionals. We provide the ground rules; you provide the small time commitment of one phone call or in-person interaction per month for a three-month trial period. Visit www.cio.com/forums/executive/mentors for more information and to enroll--because this job ain't getting any easier.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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