If not for the strong mentoring experiences he had during his formative management years, Larry Liss, CTO for Philadelphia legal firm Blank Rome LLP, is very sure he wouldn’t be in his current role.

“The managers I had early in my career were particularly important. I absolutely would not have gotten to where I am today without the mentors I had,” said Liss, noting that one mentor served as a valuable role model for more than 20 years. “He basically taught me how to manage people and projects, as well as how to deal with company politics.”

Kevin White, a CIO, also credits his mentors with his career success and achievement. One longtime mentor stopped him from making a potentially fatal career move—a decision that would have been a “very big mistake” and would have likely knocked him off the IT executive path, he recalled.

The two executives’ experiences fall in line with a new survey—commissioned by Robert Half Technology—in which IT executives were asked about the impact of mentor relationships and career advancement. The national poll, which surveyed 1,400 CIOs, reported that 51 percent stated they benefited from having a mentor at some point during their career. The majority (72 percent) of those who missed out on having a mentor believe it would have been easier to advance if they had been under the guidance of an experienced advisor.

Just having a mentor doesn’t do the trick, though. IT professionals need to understand the role of a mentor, what to expect and, most important, that they’ll need to put their egos in the desk drawer to make the relationship work.

Developing a good mentor relationship
According to Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, every mentoring relationship has to be created and developed as a partnership. “The mentor is an advisor; he or she should help you set goals and they should be guiding, not directing,” she explained.

Too often, mentorees expect a mentor to tell them what to do, but then they don’t listen to what a mentor is advising. “That’s the number-one mistake and a huge danger to a successful mentor relationship. It’s a two-way street, where the mentor serves as a guide and the mentoree uses the mentor as a sounding board in the career decision-making process,” Spencer Lee added.

White, who’s served as CIO at Robert Half International, the parent company of Robert Half Technology, for the past five years, wasn’t looking for a mentor in 1990. He was grappling with daunting personal issues and was 18 months into his tenure as director of IT operations at a biotechnology company. His CIO had brought in a management consultant to solve some team organizational issues, and the consultant approached White.

“He walked into my office and told me that I was having some problems and what I need to do to get out of the hole. He pegged me—and then he said he was willing to work with me to turn things around,” recalled White, who admits he “hated him” at the time.

Now that mentor has not only remained a trusted advisor, but a valued friend and a part of White’s family.

White cited his personal vulnerability at the time as a big reason why the mentoring relationship was able to develop. He said his professional ego was at an all-time low—a key element to being receptive to a mentor relationship.

“You just have to be available. We all get so egotistical that we are ‘the stuff’ and that no one can tell us anything,” he said with a chuckle.

When the consultant knocked on his door, White had no clue the initial contact would end up having such an impact on both his personal and professional life. “I was ready for something. I needed to talk and lay my issue on him and talk about problems. He was trying to help me; he spoke the truth and started asking me questions like what do I want, why is something such a big deal, and it stopped me from whining about things and put things back in place,” White said.

The two began talking weekly. Over the years, the mentor sessions became monthly and now they speak whenever White needs his mentor’s help with an issue. “I lay on him my current problems and he provides invaluable practical feedback and insight. It’s so hard to find someone so genuine and authentic in the corporate world,” White said.

Why mentors are so vital in IT
While White’s mentor found him, Liss found his mentors one step up the corporate ladder. He said he was extremely lucky to find himself working for people who provided great role models. He said respect—a key element in any mentoring relationship—came easy.

“A mentor often sees someone that they believe has potential and starts working with them. It is a two-way street, and you have to be receptive to learning from those who’ve advanced and learned important lessons,” said Liss.

In watching and listening to his bosses, Liss said, he learned valuable management techniques—how to deal with people and problems in a professional way. “In the IT world, you often don’t get training to be a manager; you get training to be a specialist of what you do. So you really need a role model, and I was lucky to have several of my bosses serve in that role over the years,” he added.

One of his mentoring relationships has lasted 22 years and has a similar beginning to White’s long-term mentor success story. Liss initially met his mentor while working alongside him at IBM. The future mentor moved on, but they kept in touch and he eventually hired Liss at another company.

“So we were friends and colleagues first, before the mentor relationship began. He shared his philosophy with me, and I could easily go to him for advice. You need that trust, respect, and confidence in a person to make it work,” Liss added.

Where to reach out
Liss’ and White’s highly successful mentor relationships don’t represent the norm in terms of choosing or finding a mentor, explained RHT’s Spencer Lee. She noted that many times the immediate boss isn’t the best mentor candidate, given the supervisory roles and related issues that can come into play.

“If you want a true mentor relationship, it’s difficult to do that with a boss because it’s harder to talk freely most of the time, and many bosses aren’t committed to helping managers with career issues,” she explained.

While Liss acknowledges that his mentor experience “kind of goes against the traditional approach,” he said the key element is choosing a good role model and someone willing to share.

Spencer Lee recommends that IT professionals look to colleagues they respect outside of the work environment so that they have a confidante and a nonpolitical environment to foster the relationship. “You want a sounding board to guide you, and you don’t have to limit yourself to your current company or department to find that right person. You want someone who’ll be easy to talk with, help you attain goals, and who’s very committed to helping your career,” she advised.

Spencer Lee said her company commissioned the mentoring survey to find out if the increasing attention on mentoring was true or hype. “There’s been a lot of great lip service to mentoring, and we wanted to see if it actually did what it was supposed to,” she said, noting that she wasn’t surprised at all by the numbers.

“The 51 percent made absolute sense to me, and it’s amazing that the majority said they’ve missed out on advancing because they didn’t have a mentor in their careers. The results reinforced that IT professionals do need to reach out for help when it comes to their career,” she added. The survey results didn’t surprise Liss or White either.

“My mentor helped me to learn about myself and take a good honest look and make changes that needed to be made. It made me a better father, husband, and IT leader,” said White.