By: Sharon Florentine
Mentoring isn’t just about bringing talent along so that they understand the workflow and process norms of a company; it’s about culture and nuances of learning a profession, communication skills, leadership skills and growth as a professional and as a person. It’s also about a building a deeper connection with someone who has ‘been there, done that’ and lived to tell the tale. The most successful mentoring relationships foster mutual respect, trust, communication and career growth.
Especially for women and racially underrepresented minorities in IT, a mentor can be a lifeline. Mentors provide support and guidance, can vouch for employees’ achievements and accomplishments and can help high-potential talent keep moving up the corporate ladder.
In an era of skills shortages, mentoring can also be an effective way to extend the knowledge of expert tech talent to new hires and other less experienced staff. A 2014 APQC report found that 89% of organizations use mentoring or apprenticeships to leverage or grow experts, and 59% said that those methods were either effective or very effective. Clearly, there is room for improvement.
In fact, formalizing mentoring into a standardized, organization-wide program is difficult and can backfire if potential mentors and mentees feel they’re being forced into a relationship.
“The logistics of mentoring isn’t that hard, but it can’t be something that’s demanded by HR – mentors and mentees have to feel like they want to take part, and mentees don’t want to feel like they’re just another checkbox on their mentor’s to-do list,” says Bask Iyer, CIO and GM for Edge Computing/IOT for Dell and VMware. “The last thing you want is a mentor thinking, ‘Oh, Lord, I have eighty other things to do and now I have this mentoring meeting.’ It has to be a solid, ingrained part of your culture and that has to develop organically,” he says.
The new face of mentoring
Mentoring programs can look very different from organization to organization. The traditional formula of an older, more experienced worker matched with a young, green rookie doesn’t necessarily make for the best fit. The key is to make the process more self-directed, says Klara Jelinkova, CIO at Rice University.
“Instead of making it a one-on-one situation that might not mesh, we created a more community-focused situation so that these relationships can evolve more naturally,” says Jelinkova. “The solution we’ve hit on is self-directed career advancement, as people, especially Millennials, want more say in what they work on. How it works is potential mentees submit proposals up to a year in advance for a project that they’ll spend up to 10 percent of their time working on and then that becomes a career development pathway.”
At Rice, mentees work in teams to develop and accomplish goals, and the older, more seasoned members must thoughtfully decide how to delegate more independence without disrupting the organization, Jelinkova says.
Have a mission in mind
Iyer emphasizes that mentoring is just as much about purpose, mission and values as it is about hard skills, especially for Millennials and Generation Z. Mentors should also be evangelists for their organizations and their cultures and be committed to evangelizing that for their mentees, he says.
“At VMware, our mantra is ‘Innovation for good.’ And mentors also teach the meaning of that – ‘What is VMware? How do you navigate with that in mind? What does that mean in your own words? What does supporting innovation look like in that context? What is diversity and inclusion to us?” Iyer says. “We’re not a nonprofit; we do want to serve customers and shareholders and make money. But here, our senior people and our employees – we really, actually, truly mean that,” he says.
At Rice University, that focus on culture in addition to hard skills is critical because of how mission-driven younger generations are, Jelinkova says.
“We also work to ingrain the culture and how we work together, and we have a really strong narrative in that sense. We want people who have internalized our priorities so much that it’s a natural outgrowth of their own culture and their own mission.” Jelinkova says. “For these younger workers, it’s very important to understand how mission-driven they are, and so self-directed work, being able to propose an idea and connect around that and refine it into something our organization needs, has seen huge success. If you don’t harness that natural activism, they get very disengaged very quickly,” she says.
Building better employees
Mentoring should also extend beyond hard skills and organizational culture to include workplace basics and help younger workers develop their emotional intelligence and etiquette, says Jelinkova. “We want students and mentees to see what it’s like to be in a workplace. We want them to present ideas so they can see how to interact in a workplace setting, and master skills like sitting down and having lunch with co-workers, how to relate to different generations, meeting etiquette, that kind of thing. It’s a way to introduce them to understanding others in the workplace and honing their EQ [emotional quotient],” she says.
At VMware, Iyer notes, mentors also emphasize general etiquette and interpersonal skills to make sure mentees are respectful, punctual and able to give and receive feedback, both positive and negative.
Mentoring shouldn’t focus only on your own organization, either, but should take into account improving the industry as a whole. “When I was starting out, I was so into proving myself, that I wasn’t dedicating much time to improving the community around me – obviously, that comes with experience and time and seasoning – but it’s important to recognize,” Iyer says.