Secrets of great mentors – and how you can emulate them

Lance Wilson traces a 17-year history of mentoring in his life, as both a mentor and a mentee. From each one of those relationships, he says, he carries a treasured lesson. One of the most memorable he learned in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was rising in IT at Pillsbury under mentor Carl Wilson (no relation).

Carl Wilson, now EVP and CIO of Marriott International, is a member of the CIO Executive Council (CEC) and a judge of the 2008 Ones to Watch awards, a program conducted by CIO and the CEC that honors future IT leaders.

“I remember Carl talking to me about how my career would be determined by my PIE: performance, image and exposure,” says Lance Wilson, now CIO at Assurant Health, a Milwaukee insurer. Carl Wilson credits the idea to Pillsbury colleague John Hammitt.

To enhance his management skills, Lance Wilson learned to ask a lot of questions. “The probing kind, not the informational,” he says.

By doing that-whether you face a customer, vendor, partner or adversary-a CIO learns how to look at himself and his project or idea more objectively.

“There’s a Greek word, ekstasis, for standing outside yourself. It’s very helpful,” he says. This also helps polish your image, he adds, and exposes you to other people and points of view.

“I’ve used this many times to help facilitate understanding of dramatic change, which every CIO has to lead at some point,” he says.

“To create strong, well-performing organizations, you have to focus on individuals ,” says Hammitt, who was also director of information management at Morton-Thiokol and VP of Information Systems at United Technologies. “Executives have got a responsibility to develop strategy and oversee execution but more importantly, ensure that the team gets stronger every year.”

Wilson was lucky to have mentors to guide him: Just 41 percent of CIOs put time into developing the IT talent within their ranks, according to our 2008 “State of the CIO” research. Yet the career trajectories of CIOs who have been mentored illustrate how, when the relationships work, mentoring pays off for the people and for the company.

Seventeen of the 20 Ones to Watch honorees this year overwhelmingly rated mentoring and one-to-one coaching as very effective or extremely effective in their personal success; 15 winners also described their CIO as “extremely committed” to their career development.

Carol Mullins, a 2008 Ones to Watch honoree, credits two strong mentors with helping her career ascension to director of submission processing at the Internal Revenue Service. Recently, Mullins led the delivery of one of the IRS’s modernization projects, and she manages a $113 million budget.

Her mentors, she says, “gave me the nudge that I sometimes needed to take a step I wasn’t sure I could take.” Mullins hopes to be a CIO someday, and she mentors others inside and out of IT.

Mentoring matters much in the professional, and even personal, lives of many technology executives, says Jeri Dunn, CIO of Bacardi. “There are so many times that people get overlooked by their manager,” she says. “That’s wrong.”

Dunn, who has been CIO at Nestle USA and Tyson Foods, is a founding member of the CEC and of the Network for Executive Women in Arkansas. She says she sets up a mentoring program wherever she works.

“People need to have that kind of attention. They need to have someone they can talk to about their career and problems at work, or anywhere, really,” says Dunn, who also judged the 2008 Ones to Watch awards. Mentoring also makes the company better, she says. “When you have that ability to communicate and get guidance from someone who’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt, you’re more confident and productive.”

CIOs fortunate enough to have good mentoring experiences early in their careers often go on to mentor younger colleagues. Those we spoke with agree there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

For example, mentor-mentee pairs shouldn’t be assigned; forcing a relationship sabotages it. As Craig Cuyar, SVP & CIO of Realogy, puts it: “To get the most out of this joint venture, you need shared risk and mutual benefit. You don’t have that in an arranged marriage.”

Though it happens, mentoring shouldn’t be viewed as coaching. The latter is focused on specific enumerated goals-developing public speaking skills, for instance, or learning how to write a performance review, says CEC member Catherine Boivie, senior vice president of IT at Pacific Blue Cross, a healthcare system in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But mentoring is about developing a career in sync with someone’s skills and goals. Mentoring, says Boivie, another Ones to Watch judge, “is an ongoing relationship rather than a transaction.”

And, Boivie adds, coaches get paid for it. Mentors volunteer.

Reflecting that giving nature, CIOs from companies large and small share here distillations of what they’ve learned on both sides of the mentoring process, as well as key lessons they wish they’d been taught as they took on their first CIO roles. We’re not saying there are easy shortcuts, of course. But take a look.

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