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IT Leadership

Filling the Vacuum

How mentoring can serve as a cornerstone for your IT department’s succession plan.

A 2009 CIO study from the Center for Higher Education CIO Studies (CHECS) found that 45 out of 100 higher education CIO respondents planned to retire or change careers by 2019. That exodus, writ large, could cause a vacuum effect across the entire higher education landscape.

Compounding the problem, according to CHECS founder Wayne Brown, is the fact that 38 percent of aspiring CIOs reported that no one is helping them achieve their goals of reaching the upper levels of higher education IT.

One way to help potential CIOs develop the skills that they need to rise in their careers is through mentoring, whereby an experienced CIO or high-level director personally guides an up-and-coming employee in the IT organization. “For effective succession to take place within an IT department, you have to be able to counsel future leaders in a one-on-one format,” says Jenny Cobb, CEO at strategic consultancy JTC Associates in Nashville, TN.

Future CIOs, notes Cobb, typically need the most grooming not in the technical aspects of the job, but in leadership and management. “Much money has been spent on technology and skills training for IT pros,” she points out. “But little effort has been allocated to developing leadership capacity, distributed leadership, and good decision-making throughout organizations.”

This is where mentoring can make a difference, Cobb believes. “Through mentoring, you can get leaders in tune with what’s happening throughout the organization and [get them to] align themselves with the long-term business vision for their departments, themselves, and their staffs.”

Ellen Keohane, director of IT services at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, sees mentoring as a vital part of leadership development, and says she’s worked one-on-one with numerous IT professionals during her seven years as CIO (she’s been with Holy Cross since 1984). Concerned about the coming shortage of IT leaders, Keohane says grooming the next generation of CIOs is particularly important for higher education, which has to compete with the private sector and its multiple career paths. “Colleges aren’t as top-heavy in terms of opportunities and career paths, so we have to fight even harder not to lose our high-potential people,” she says.

Structuring the Relationship

Mentoring can be a formal arrangement, in which specific goals are set, communication protocols followed, benchmarks measured, and institutional accountability required. Or it can involve informal relationships that happen in a more ad hoc way.4 “Sometimes just going to lunch one or twice a month with an experienced employee can have high value for a new staff member,” says Keohane.

While many mentoring specialists advocate formalized relationships, some research suggests that informal mentoring relationships can be just as effective. In a 2000 Academy of Management Journal study—which included a literature review and a statistical study of the attitudes of 1,162 people regarding the impact of formal and informal mentoring relationships—the authors found that the quality of the mentoring relationship itself had a stronger impact on the employees’ attitudes toward work and career than the design of the mentorship program, whether formal or informal.

Furthermore, technology-enabled long-distance relationships can be as effective as face-to-face ones. In a 2007 study of 11 client organizations, Triple Creek, a consulting firm specializing in “enterprise mentoring systems,” found that “face-to-face and distance mentoring relationships showed no statistically significant difference for satisfaction and impact results.”

In fact, the study found that it was not the mode of the relationship, but the time spent in it that actually had the greater impact on employees’ satisfaction levels. Survey results suggest that “as long as participants commit sufficient time [one to two hours per month, according to study data], distance mentoring can produce great results.”

8 Basic Principles

Whether the mentoring arrangements are formal, informal, face-to-face, or online, Keohane offers eight key principles to ensure the success of any mentoring relationship. “If you can get all of these details worked out early in the process,” she says, “your chances of success will improve significantly.”

1) To identify potential mentees, survey your IT department to determine which candidates are aspiring to grow into management and/or leadership roles.

2) When pairing mentors and mentees, ask the latter exactly what type of mentor they are seeking (for example, an experienced leader or a peer). Likewise, some mentees are more comfortable with a mentor of the same gender.

3) Match people by preferred meeting mode. Some people (even techies) are more comfortable face-to-face, while others prefer the telephone, e-mail, or videoconferencing. Some may want to use a blended model.

4) Ensure the mentor understands what the mentee is looking for in the relationship. “That should be part of the first discussions between them,” says Keohane. If the mentorship is not part of a designed program, the participants “should also establish guidelines about how often they will meet and how to make those meetings productive.” In any case, the mentee should establish an agenda ahead of time.

5) Issues of confidentiality must be established before the relationship begins. Mentees must be assured that the nature and details of discussions with their mentors will be kept in strict confidence. Human relations departments often have mentor confidentiality policies.

6) The expected duration of the relationship should be established up front. Encourage long-term relationships between mentors and mentees, but recognize that the process can also be beneficial for short-term stints such as helping IT professionals transition into new jobs and adapt to new cultures.

7) Take a realistic approach. “If a large-scale mentoring program is unlikely to get off the ground, then start small,” says Keohane. She suggests pairing new managers or aspiring managers with experienced mentors from within your division, and then supporting monthly or quarterly lunches between them.

8) Look beyond your division. “IT staff often are accused of being isolated from the rest of the campus,” says Keohane. To buck this trend, match aspiring IT leaders from within your division with senior staff across the institution. “They will benefit from leadership development and a better understanding of your particular institution’s culture,” she adds.

Finally, look beyond your own institution when setting up a mentoring program. Perhaps your school is a member of a regional or national consortium. The College of the Holy Cross, for example, is a member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). The IT management group of AJCU established a mentoring program in 2007 to pair mentees from the 28 Jesuit institutions with mentors from other institutions.

“The program has been a great success,” says Keohane. “The inter-institutional relationships allow for more candid discussions between the mentor and mentee while also providing perspectives from a different organization.”

Learn More

“2009 Higher Education Technology Leadership Study: The Chief Information Officers of the Future.” Wayne A. Brown, Ph.D., Center for Higher Education CIO Studies.

“Marginal Mentoring: The Effects of the Type of Mentor, Quality of Relationship, and Program Design on Work and Career Attitudes.” Belle Rosin Ragins, John L. Cotton, and Janice S. Miller. Academy of Management Journal, December 2000.

“Web-based Mentoring’s Impact on Retention and Productivity.” Triple Creek Associates, Inc., 2008.

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