Looking for a hand to hold

Relying solely on technical skills won’t cut it anymore for IT workers looking to advance their careers – and that’s where the guidance of a mentor can help, according to a recent survey.

The poll, developed by Robert Half Technology, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company that recruits IT workers on behalf of clients, went out to 270 chief information officers (CIOs) from a random sample of Canadian companies with 100 or more employees.

More than half – 61 per cent – of the CIOs polled said they benefited from having a mentor at some point in their careers. Seventy-one per cent of those who missed out on having a mentor said they felt it would have been easier to advance if there had been an experienced advisor on their side, the survey found.

“It’s important to have someone who can help guide you through your growth in the company and the industry you’re in,” said Stephen Mill, regional manager for Robert Half Technology in Toronto. “Having that support can help someone advance professionally within the company.”

According to Mill, the job possibilities for strictly tech-talented individuals are limited. More IT employees are looking for work, and whereas at one time technical skills were enough to get a job, now “they’ll only get you so far.” Companies and recruiters are looking for other talents – such as presentation or interpersonal skills – to narrow down the list of job candidates, he said.

“There was a time when the IT department was almost absconded from everyone else,” but in most companies today, it’s now centrally located, Mill said. “There’s been an evolution of IT beyond just people hiding in a corner writing code…If you can’t take technical concepts and turn them into normal language, you probably won’t get the job today – and we see that every day in our business, as much in contract as in full-time placement.”

This is where it pays to have someone pulling for you, Mill said. Although some mentor relationships are informal, many companies have set up structured mentorship programs to help train employees for more senior roles. And even in these days of cutbacks and shrinking budgets, companies still find such programs important, particularly because of their employee retention function, according to Mill.

“A partnership with someone who has been through what new employees will be going through – you can’t put a price on that. If you have access to someone who has inner knowledge of the workings of the company, why do it on your own?”

Finding a match

Renee Williams, mentorship program coordinator for the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI), said the St. John’s, Nfld. organization’s new mentorship program, launched in April, is a response to some of the findings from a study NATI conducted in late 2001.

“From that study we found that there is a need for guidance and expertise for our members who may lack experience in certain areas. So we started to develop a mentorship program to help knowledge-based organizations reach their fullest potential,” Williams said.

The mentorship program is still under development; Williams said NATI is in the process of identifying and asking individuals if they would like to be mentors or “mentees.” Part of the process is determining a good match. “We want to make sure that the fit and relationship will be successful,” Williams said.

Mentors are expected to put in a minimum of four hours a month, either in person, or via videoconferencing or e-mail, so they can “get to know the mentee, the organization and what they do, and use their experience in guiding the mentee and in helping them make decisions,” said Williams.

Mill said mentors are often found outside of the IT department. “If the mentee needs to prepare to move into a different role in the company, it’s a good idea that they work with someone from another department, such as marketing, human resources, or operations.”

People in other parts of the company can share their knowledge of what the candidate needs to improve on, he said. “It’s just like cross pollination within the company – getting different departments working together.”

Williams agreed that this strategy of mentor recruitment works well – NATI is looking for mentors who are not necessarily part of the IT departments in their organizations. “We’re considering people across different sectors,” particularly in the financing, marketing and exporting sectors, she said.


Become a CIO in 12 steps

The following are some of the principles that helped me, at 37, become the youngest IT director at a US$6 billion retail company – and a CIO.

1. Embody CRM. Every person in your company, whether it’s the janitor or the CEO, is your customer.

2. Change your dialect. You must be able to effectively communicate with non-technical people.

3. Create a service culture. Demand step number one from your direct reports. I have a zero-tolerance rule for bad customer service.

4. You’re only as good as your team. Remember that your employees are also your customers – so treat them as such.

5. Purple monkey water wrench. Got that? Exactly. Your customers no more understand your techno-speak than you understand the heading for this point.

6. Follow up at all cost. Follow-up is more important than all the technical qualifications in the world.

7. “You won’t believe the call I just received.” Make proactive calls to your customers on a regular basis. Ask them how you and your group are doing.

8. Skillfully manage expectations. Never fall victim to the classic IT pitfall of overcommitting and underdelivering.

9. Stay as far away from company politics as you can. Do not partake in petty infighting in your company.

10. Get up close and personal with financials. I have never met an effective corporate executive who didn’t understand basic financial principles.

11. Networking without wires. Maintain your contacts with former colleagues, bosses and even vendor account representatives.

12. Forget the Alamo. Remember Enron – never compromise your ethics. Enough said.

– By Steve Williams, CIO (U.S.)