Every IT shop has them: the gurus that sit in dark corners, sequestered from the rest of the team by reputation and mystique. Though valuable assets, these senior developers are often intimidating and unapproachable. Many attempt to preserve their hermit-like status through solo projects or independent research.

With the proper approach, you can tap these repositories of skill and knowledge. Follow these suggestions for making your senior developers accessible and encouraging them to act as mentors to their teammates.

Make it worth their time
I’ve found that all highly skilled professionals zealously guard their time. They’re annoyed by frivolity, and they don’t tolerate interruptions. When you approach a developer to mentor a teammate, make sure you value the developer’s time as well. For instance, don’t ask someone to mentor more than one person at a time—mentors still need to get their own work done.

To make the situation more enticing to the senior developer, offer some sort of trade-off. Rather than just creating new responsibilities that not only mean human contact but also remedial activities, try to find a way for your guru to get something out of the experience. Encourage your senior developer to delegate tasks to the student—this will ensure continued contact between the pair.

Another approach is to offer training or other benefits for the mentor and the student to attend together. Allow them to expense the occasional lunch outing. The more positive, constructive contact the two have, the more effective their time together will be.

Select match-ups carefully
It’s imperative to select a student who will work well with the senior teammate and benefit the most from the mentoring. In determining who will be your guru’s “Grasshopper,” you need to consider the student’s personality as well as the potential knowledge benefit. Very talented people can be caustic, cynical, and impatient. You must find someone who is hungry for advancement and who won’t antagonize his or her mentor.

Let your senior developer pick the student, if he or she wants to. Of course, the junior member must also be a willing participant, and should be someone who is willing to work hard and will benefit from the training.

Of course, there are those gurus who will look on tutoring as a burden, no matter who the student is or how sweet the deal. In those cases, you’ll have to make it clear why you’ve chosen them to take someone under their wing.

Play to their ego
Always approach the senior developer with the idea of mentoring someone before you talk to the rest of the team about it. A few well-placed phrases such as, “I understand you shoulder a lot of responsibilities” or “I really think so-and-so could benefit from your experience” may help butter him or her up—without laying it on too thick.

At the same time, do yourself and your developer a favor and be direct about your request. Have confidence in your goal, and don’t dance around the issues. Expect that you might encounter some resistance. Concede that the team stands to benefit greatly from the guru’s participation. Acknowledge that the situation may present some inconveniences, but be firm about both the need to improve your team and your intention to minimize the distractions. If the guru does push back, that’s the time to mention the “carrot” part of your plan—the potential benefits.

Also, make it clear that you trust your senior developer’s judgment to work with the junior teammate to determine what gets taught. Explicitly stating that the guru has expertise you consider so valuable will help him or her understand your desire to help pass that expertise along to other team members. You might make the point that, by accepting this responsibility, the senior developer can delegate certain tasks, freeing up time to pursue other projects.

You should also be clear that you want to facilitate mentoring. Show how much you value your senior developer’s time. Make it clear you won’t let these new duties overrun his or her day.

Lay down clear guidelines
Once you’ve got mentor and student lined up, you must deliver on your promise to make the process as painless as possible. Make it clear to the junior developer that, if he or she accepts the opportunity, it will mean taking on new responsibilities. Explain why you think he or she is a good candidate, and include any relevant hesitations expressed by the mentor-to-be. Explain your goals and motivations clearly.

If you and your senior developer discussed time limitations or other guidelines, pass them along to the teammate. Your senior developer is doing you and the team a favor. The best thing you can do is to acknowledge it and return it by being clear about everyone’s expectations.

Great gurus
Not all gurus are irritable hermits who shun human interaction, but those who are can still contribute to the team if you approach them in the right way. Use these guidelines to draw those individuals out and make use of their unique knowledge to advance your team’s skills. By making the role of mentor a coveted and revered position, you may find another niche that sets your lead developers head and shoulders above the rest.

Has mentoring helped your staff?

Share your experiences about how mentoring can improve you team’s skills by joining in the discussion below or sending us an e-mail.