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Secret CIO: Mentoring Has Own Rewards--And Risks

It's not in anyone's best interest to single out the wrong person.
Mentoring is given a bad name by people who march into your office and say, "I want to get ahead. Will you be my mentor?" They don't seem to realize that it's not in anyone's best interest for the boss to single them out for special attention unless the reasons are clear to all and the time invested likely worth the results. Pick the wrong person to mentor and the new disciple's co-workers wonder why the anointed has been chosen and develop sufficient resentment that productivity and morale suffer. Not only will the organization question your judgment, but so will the person to whom you report.

There's another downside to picking a select one or few to mentor. More than once, I've listened to applicants for jobs give the reason for leaving their present employer as favoritism or a dead-end position. When I've probed, I hear that some fair-haired guy or gal is treated as the resident treasure and has the inside track on the next promotion.

On the other hand, why shouldn't the people with whom you work, especially the really talented ones, get the value of your experience? If you can aid them in avoiding the mistakes you've made over the years and give them the insight you gotten from your failures and successes, it helps them and the entire organization.

One way to bypass the problems of mentoring while maintaining its benefits is to adopt the policy of mentoring everyone in the organization. Sounds silly and easy to say, doesn't it? Why would you want to mentor a group instead of your best and brightest? How can you? Where will you find the time? What do you do about the kiss-up who will hog your precious time?

With the application of a few hard-nosed rules, I found that it is practical, possible, and desirable. Unless you're smarter than most people, including me, you really don't know who will be the leader of tomorrow. It keeps up team spirit and increases your options if you work at giving everyone who is interested and shows talent the attention necessary to make them feel they're important to the organization (as well they should be).

One tool that has worked for me is holding an open monthly meeting where I explain what's going on in the company and the reasons I've made the decisions I have. No question is off-limits and if I can't answer, I say why. These forums are supplemented with periodic small (a half-dozen or so people) lunchtime gatherings where I can talk on a more personal level. Since the individuals request to attend, they're self-selecting: Only those people truly interested take the initiative. I also make it a point to sit among the staff at lunch when I can. I probably learn more from the interaction than they do.

The result is that people who really want mentoring make the extra effort to talk to me. My door is always open to them (as it is to everyone) to talk in private. If someone is too demanding of attention (a narcissist or the proverbial kiss-up), I explain I need to spend time with others. The smart ones self-correct and the problem is eliminated.

Group mentoring isn't easy and you may have to make an extra effort to find the time, but the benefits to the organization and to the talented pool of people who are the backbone of any company are well worth it.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at [email protected].

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