Mentoring helps new managers gain skills and confidence

Mentors can help novice IT managers travel their new and uncertain terrain. Here are a few pointers on building mentoring relationships that work.

When you become an IT manager, you must adjust to new responsibilities and expectations. Many organizations recognize this issue and try to find ways to make the transition a little easier. One approach that can be helpful is mentoring or having more seasoned managers provide guidance to newer ones.

Mentoring can be done informally, when a senior and junior manager strike up a friendship and share ideas about work concepts and responsibilities. But some organizations use formal mentoring programs as a management tool to accelerate the growth and confidence of new managers and to give senior managers an opportunity to share their knowledge and wisdom.

Formal mentoring programs can be a scary concept for both new and seasoned managers because of the fear of failure. New managers may be afraid of being viewed as knuckleheads by their mentors, while seasoned managers acting as mentors may fear being viewed as unhelpful or uncaring.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you have a mentor or if, someday, you may be a mentor yourself.

Voluntary participation breeds success
Mentoring can succeed only if both parties are supportive and interested in making it a success. Programs that force mentoring relationships onto people are probably not going to succeed. The mentoring programs that will be most effective are those that encourage voluntary involvement of senior managers and allow sufficient flexibility for both mentors and those being mentored to discontinue the relationship.

Choose impartial mentors
Mentoring is not the same as coaching or supervision. The most successful mentors will be people who do not have direct working relationships with those being mentored. The more impartial the mentors, the better they will be able to help new managers grow as professionals. Trust is a critical element in a successful mentoring relationship. Supervisors have motives for shaping staff behaviors that are not always conducive to successful mentoring.

Schedule your success
Commitment is essential to a successful mentoring relationship. It is important to agree on what is to be accomplished through the process, how progress will be evaluated, and how long the process should continue. One of the biggest sources of failure for mentoring is the mentor's inability or unwillingness to stick to scheduled meetings or to follow through on expectations.

If the ground rules are not established up front, the mentoring process will not be focused enough to work. Friendship can grow from a mentoring relationship, but it is not the primary goal. The goals and objectives for mentoring should be to increase a new manager's skill level and confidence and his or her ability to operate successfully within the organizational culture.

Making mentoring work: A sample scenario
The following scenario addresses some of these issues. Ben is a new LAN administrator who has been on the job for about three weeks. He is a seasoned technician and help desk coordinator with 10 years of experience with other organizations. Ben feels fairly confident about his ability to keep the LAN up and running effectively, but he's less sure about managing his staff and figuring out how things work in the organization.

Recently, the organization's human resources director announced the creation of a mentoring program for new managers. Ben felt that he could use some help with things in general but was a bit leery of taking a chance with this new program. He wondered if his mentor would be supportive or helpful, and if his supervisor would be encouraging.

Ben decided to take the plunge and find out more about the program. He spoke to his supervisor who was generally supportive as long as he was kept in the loop about who the mentor would be and how the process would be set up. Ben sat down with his team's human resources coordinator and gathered some information about the program. He learned that his mentor would be chosen from a pool of seasoned managers who had volunteered to participate. Ben was assured that nothing would be forced onto him and that he could discontinue his involvement in the program if he felt it was not helpful.

He agreed to participate in the program and was assigned a mentor who was a senior manager in the organization's operations department. Although this person had no LAN or help desk experience, he was well versed in management issues in general. Ben met with his new mentor, Mike, and they got to know each other and developed goals and objectives for the mentoring process.

Over time, Ben became frustrated with Mike because he canceled meetings and seemed distracted when they met. Ben talked with his supervisor and the mentoring program's coordinator, and the coordinator decided to discontinue Ben's relationship with Mike. Ben was disappointed, but, with the encouragement of the program's coordinator, decided to try again.

Next, he was assigned to Judy, who was the organization's vice president for management. Ben met regularly with Judy for the next six months to discuss issues that had come up and how Ben had addressed them. Ben found Judy to be very empathetic and receptive to his concerns and developed considerable confidence in her understanding of management issues. Judy also had a real handle on how things were done within the organization and gave Ben some great ideas on how to address situations and work with people.

Ben eventually gained considerable confidence in his own ability to manage and motivate people and began to feel much more comfortable in the work environment. With Judy's help and the support of his supervisor, he had also gotten the opportunity to meet senior managers and learn a lot about the organization's priorities.

After six months of meeting regularly, Ben and Judy determined that Ben had progressed sufficiently to discontinue their mentoring relationship. However, Judy invited Ben to approach her in the future whenever he had a particularly pressing issue to address. Ben initially missed the meetings he had with Judy, but he felt much more assured of his ability to succeed in the organization.

The moral of this story is that successful mentoring relationships are not guaranteed, but, when they do occur, they can be a tremendous boost to the productivity and confidence of new IT managers.

Final thoughts
Mentoring can be an effective management tool for developing the skills and confidence of new managers. These programs can also be fulfilling for senior managers who enjoy passing on their knowledge and wisdom to others. But productive mentoring relationships require proper planning; agreement on goals, objectives, and expected outcomes; and proper follow-through on agreements and promises made by both the mentor and person being mentored.

For more information about the usefulness of mentoring, read A Practical Guide to Mentoring by David Kay and Roger Hinds (2002) and Beyond the Myths and Magic of Mentoring: How to Facilitate an Effective Mentoring Process by Margo Murray (2001).