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5/31/2002
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Set Goals And Meet Objectives, The Mentoring Way

IT companies find both mentors and protégés gain from formal programs

Microsoft CIO and VP of IT Rick Devenuti says he's benefited greatly from having mentors during his career. His relationships with them were critical to his growth, both personally and professionally, he says. When asked what he's learned from his mentors, he tends to talks about integrity, passion, and perseverance, not technical skills. And he's passing on that knowledge.

Among those benefiting from Devenuti's experience is Bobby Kishore, now general manager of Microsoft's digital rights, engineering, and applications-management team. Devenuti helps him understand not only which issues to focus on in business and technology but also his own blind spots, Kishore says. One key lesson he had to learn was "to stick with a challenge you're facing--look at it as an opportunity to grow instead of leaving the problem because the going is tough," Kishore says. "The toughest part is developing a thick skin."

The mentoring chain continues in Kishore. "Lots of people from the IT group see me as someone who's come through the ranks and into the product group," he says. "So they come to me when they're in transition" or have a pressing question.

Mentoring, while commonplace for decades in the trades and on the executive track, isn't as common in IT. But it's becoming more important. As the economic downturn has shaken feelings of stability and confidence, IT pros, like all career professionals, feel a need for guidance and counseling. At the same time, IT and business have become tightly linked, and tech specialists can't expect to advance unless they understand that technology is a business driver. Pure technologists may find their careers stymied as they watch their more business-savvy peers advance beyond them.

Mentoring can help. A good IT mentoring relationship has much in common with any mentoring relationship: ongoing opportunities to check in with one another and benefits for each participant. The goal is to groom the next generation of business-technology leaders.

But mentoring is different in IT. The goals, interests, and the career path of the IT pro can be different from those of someone in sales, accounting, or marketing. Often, a love of technology inspired a person to enter IT. But technology alone will only take an IT pro so far, and that can be a hard lesson to learn.

"I'm always more technology-focused, as in 'here's a cool tech idea,'" Kishore says. "Rick brings in the business-value perspective: What business problem does it solve? How does it align with our business direction?"

In addition to business perspectives, IT mentoring can help people with necessary skills in fields that are more dynamic and fast-paced than most other professional disciplines, says Mike Schroeck, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. "It's more important to be on the cutting edge. That goes on in all our conversations," he says.

Fran Allen, IBM Fellow for Research. Photo by Racelle Mozman.

In 1957, the idea of mentoring wasn't widespread outside the executive track, IBM Fellow Allen recalls
Having someone to point out the business issues involved in a technology decision can be one benefit of mentoring in the IT world. Another is gaining better insight into the human issues. "People skills aren't necessarily the strongest skills that technical people have," says Fran Allen, an IBM Fellow for Research. "Often, they're surprised when they're told about the importance of dealing with it."

One of the best gifts a mentor can offer is a clear example of making conscious career choices. A mentor can inspire someone to push beyond his or her own perceived limitations to greater success, in terms of role, status, and character development. Allen, who joined IBM's research division in 1957, recalls there was no formal mentoring program in that division. At that time, she recalls, the idea of mentoring wasn't widespread outside the executive track. But she says she received a lot of support and guidance from people eager to help her along.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, for example, was in Allen's management chain. One day, he came to her office and told her he wanted her to try something new--to lead a research project on compilers for parallel computers. "He offered me an opportunity and a challenge I'd never thought of, and assured me I could do it," she says of the complex project that marked a critical milestone on her career path.

It paid off. Allen now is one of only 55 IBM employees in the world who holds the title of IBM Fellow. Conferred directly by the CEO, the title represents the highest honor a technical person can achieve. And she tries to give back in return. She likes to seek out people who are new to the company and help them figure out how to succeed. "They're used to academia--here, they can be completely baffled as to how they'll succeed in the IBM research environment," she says.

Mentoring is a high priority for Allen, and she considers it a part of her normal workday. In a typical week, she has two in-office meetings and three lunches with various protégés and others seeking her counsel. IBM was so impressed with Allen's commitment to mentoring that they established an award in her name, given to IBM women who take the lead in mentoring other women.

Allen likes some of the creative approaches she's seeing, such as a pilot project on group mentoring, led by one of this year's award recipients, June Andersen, corporate manager for product safety and hardware compliance. The idea was that a small group of women meet monthly and mentor one another with the objective of improving their position at work. Nine women joined Andersen's group in San Jose, Calif. Aside from meeting monthly, no other structure or limitations were given.

Over the course of a year, they met regularly in person and shared ideas and resource materials online using Lotus Notes Team Room. They learned what works for this unusual model: small groups, and a commitment to remain involved for the year. The women mentored one another, and encouraged each other in working out issues that fall outside the scope of their jobs. One of the questions the group tackled was how to move beyond shyness to approach someone about being a mentor. They discussed it, did some role playing, and came up with a good approach that would work for anyone seeking a mentor.

Mentoring relationships are somewhat like friendships: They work best when they evolve naturally over time, rather than being created under a formal policy. Company mentoring programs can work, and they seem to be most successful when aimed at people just starting with a new company or division. In most cases, however, they're transitional, eventually being replaced by mentoring relationships that develop more informally.

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, new consultants are assigned a coach or mentor the first day they show up for work. The two have regular meetings and conversations, and the coach has input into evaluations and areas for skills growth, and works on helping the employee develop an annual personal plan, which emerges from the annual review but is a separate document.

However, once new employees settle in, they're just as likely to select another coach of their own choosing. For day-to-day checking in at client sites where most of the work is done, Schroeck says there's nothing like being able to pick up the phone, particularly when so much of what comes up at a client site is time-sensitive. That's where the trust level, built over time through an informal mentoring relationship, can sometimes be much stronger than a relationship created under a formal program.

That's not to say formal programs are unsuccessful: In fact, for people who may be too shy to seek it out on their own, such programs can offer a career advantage they would otherwise miss.

Many companies need to do more to foster a mentoring culture. And that's where formal mentoring programs come in, says Linda Phillips Jones, a principal consultant at CCC/The Mentoring Group in Grass Valley, Calif. "In a perfect world, all of us would find the perfect mentor," she says, "but in the real world, a lot of people don't know how to do it and they fall through the cracks."

She helped to set up the formal mentoring program at Microsoft, which--no surprise here--makes use of technology to help guide young employees. A software program developed in-house acts as a matchmaker of sorts, seeking the best matches based on anonymous profiles of potential mentors and protégés. From individual profiles, the program generates the top-scoring matches.

Once the mentor-protégé pairs are notified of a match, the program kicks in. Typically, a mentor spends an hour or two each month with a protege; a protégé will spend two hours to four hours a month on meetings, homework, and research. The formal program runs a year, and involves a four-step process, beginning with training.

For employees at business headquarters, there are new training courses nearly every week; remote workers can go online to receive similar information and have access to resources. Much of what happens between mentor and protégé over the first three months is considered a trust-building phase. During this time, both parties will negotiate an agreement about when, where, and how to meet, as well as deal with issues around confidentiality.

The next stage, the heart of the mentoring year, serves to develop the protégé. Microsoft has developed a number of tools and templates to assist in setting goals and objectives, and documenting activities that work toward meeting those goals.

Admittedly, mentoring can be a tough sell to IT professionals, says Jason Scovill, who heads Microsoft's mentoring program. "A huge part of our population is male coders. It's 'I need to know what to talk about and how this works.' There's some anxiety. We wanted to make mentoring very practical and tangible."

"They want tools and process," says Phillips Jones. "They don't want to chew the fat for a long time. It's best to give them a suggested game plan and blueprints."

IT people appreciate that, Scovill says. "Without structure, there can be a lot of initial momentum for the idea, but nothing to sustain it, so it fizzles out," he says. To help keep it going, part of the momentum includes automatic surveys at three months, six months, and 12 months, and quarterly get-togethers as a group.

A recent gathering included three mentor-protégé pairs on a panel to talk informally about best practices and what they were learning. Scovill says it gives both mentors and protégés a fresh perspective and renewed commitment to their work together.

The company decided to end the mentoring cycle after a year, based in part on Phillips Jones' recommendation. "To go more than a year risks burnout," she says.

At Microsoft, mentors and protégés close the formal relationship by assessing progress, evaluating the process, and recognizing each other for their contribution to the effort.

A good mentoring relationship benefits both mentor and protégé. Scovill says that at the panel discussion last month, mentors reported being surprised and pleased at how much they're enjoying and benefiting from the program. "The magic happens in the pair, not the program," Scovill says. "We're just a spark to get the fire going."

Photo of Allen by Racelle Mozman.

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