CXO

Mentorship program helps new IT managers

Many people think of mentorship programs as mostly for entry-level staffers. But one company's mentoring program for newbie tech managers has proven worthwhile for both senior and newly minted IT leaders.


Nine years as a hotel manager did not prepare Aaron Tuck on how to motivate technology professionals, admits the entry-level IT manager at AT&T Wireless’ Customer Systems unit in Bothell, WA.

“My employees had always been college kids who had different goals in life than my peers and employees here,” explained Tuck. “I needed to learn what management styles work in this environment.”

Fortunately for Tuck, ATTW had recently begun a mentorship program to boost the skills of new ATTW entry-, mid-, and high-level IT managers, as well as budding IT directors. The program is one example of how an IT organization can team up with Human Resources to provide helpful skills to new managers.

The mentor approach
Piloted in 2001 for the ATTW’s Customer Systems IT unit, the “Mentorship for Managers Program” is now up and running throughout the telco’s U.S. branches. Since its launch, two other ATTW units have joined up—Operations and Infrastructure and Enterprise Architecture Security.

A liberal set of selection criteria lets many of ATTW's 3,000 tech workers apply for mentorship. To qualify, mentors need at least one year in a middle or senior management or director-level position. Proteges must be in their first year of employment, or a manager must recommend them for participation in the program.

The process of matching mentors with proteges starts with two online surveys. One examines individual mentor proficiencies, and the other polls proteges on the skills they want to develop. Anne McCreary, senior HR rep from the Customer Systems group, then pairs mentors with mentees based on the survey responses.

At the end of the program, the mentors write up observations on their proteges’ progress and send the report to both the protege and the protege's manager. To gather additional performance metrics, the HR department also polls proteges to learn about the success stories and failures. This quarter, McCreary is administering the program for 45 proteges and 19 mentors (mentors usually serve two or three proteges per quarter.

Mentors don’t need to work in the same tech unit or geographic location as their proteges. Occasionally, McCreary links a mentor with a protege who works across the country.

“We’ve found that what the mentors really want is a lifeline, and this program provides that even if it's just over the phone,” she said.

Structuring the relationship
The mentorships last three months, during which time mentors have the option of structuring educational lessons for proteges, complete with homework due at each weekly meeting. The mentors are required to devote an hour a week to each mentee.

Some mentors choose to gather proteges together for group discussions on a particular topic. Others prefer to build trust and focus on a protege's particular question or challenge during one-on-ones, explained McCreary. Still others may host guest speakers, tour different businesses, or administer personality strengths tests.

That required time commitment by mentors offers various benefits for senior-level managers. Mentors take satisfaction from helping to develop the skills of people coming up the ranks.

“There’s nothing more challenging and fun than to work with someone who is intelligent and up-and-rising in their career,” said Leighton Carroll, a senior IT manager in ATTW’s Customer Systems unit.

Mentors also learn a thing or two in the process of coaching. “As you develop your managerial career, you may have forgotten things, or they may not have existed as you grew in your career,” explained ATTW mentor Scott Stagner, a development manager. “It helps you reassess as you hear things from these proteges.”

What proteges are concerned about
Topics of discussion between coaches and proteges range from questions about management styles, setting goals, handling conflict, and in one case, how to best react to a reorg. As reorganizations create uncertainty and confusion for many employees, new managers in particular need to have the reorganization process outlined, said Carroll.

And it’s at times during reorganizations—when new managers find themselves out of their comfort and experience zones—that the mentor program has particularly shone.

“Typically, new managers feel like they need to know all the answers,” said McCreary. “They tend to hold things close to their chests…. [Participating in a mentoring program] gives them a source of information outside of HR."

Even without the mentor program, the culture at ATTW breeds information sharing and camaraderie among peer managers and management teams, said former protege Carol McCloskey, an entry-level manager in WebAXE Software Development.

As McCloskey pointed out, there are often many ways to solve the same problem. A mentor program gives the participants flexibility to consider many avenues and lets you “open up…and allows the mentor to broaden your mind and your horizon,” she said.

Tuck agrees, and credits the mentorship program with helping him acquire skills needed to motivate his new IT team. And although he has a solid relationship with his boss, the mentor relationship provides a worthwhile “second opinion” on some situations, he added.

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