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Sharm Manwani, programme director at Henley Management College and former IT director recalls how a mentor helped in his former life. “My mentor was vice president of customer services and really able to take the pulse of the organisation. Coming from an IT background, we tend to view things in quite an analytical way and often judge something purely on its benefits or not to the organisation.”

These conversations helped Manwani when he was European IT and business process director for Electrolux and IT director for Diageo. “My mentor might say ‘I don’t think the CEO views it like that – he’s expecting another person to be involved/wants something quicker’ - whatever it was. I would still ring up the CEO to have a conversation but I was clearer about what I wanted to say - and the mentor’s input had a big impact on any of the proposals I made.”

Another senior IT manager looks back at his time as the IS development director with a high street retailer. He used an in-house mentoring programme in order to solve the stakeholder management complexities that dogged his projects. “There was a complex matrix within the company, which entailed multiple accountabilities in different directions.” These often threatened to derail IT projects.

His mentor came from the distribution side of the organisation and so had a different perspective altogether of the business. As a result of these mentoring conversations, he was able to tailor conversations to suit different stakeholders. He’s disarmingly frank about whether his success was down to the mentoring factor – “to this day I don’t know” - but says his projects did run smoother.

In recognition of the fact that it can be ‘lonely at the top’ and that newcomers to senior ICT management need a helping hand, Socitm, the local government IT managers’ organisation,
http://www.socitm.gov.uk/socitm/ has launched a mentoring scheme. It matches a senior member to junior colleagues.

While mentoring tends to consist of informal, unstructured conversations on the phone or in person, Socitm suggests areas where the relationship can assist most: knowledge sharing; working though professional and personal issues; support for research or study and to be a sounding board.

Having a sounding board for critical decisions is perhaps the most useful aspect of a mentor, according to Joe Peppard, professor of information systems at Cranfield School of Management. “They’ve [CIO’s] usually got the answer within them. Good mentoring is the art of listening carefully and then asking the right kind of questions.” He offers informal mentoring to IT directors on his IT leadership course who sometimes call in before a meeting or presentation. “They want to do the right thing and ask me to be a sounding board.”

IT directors and managers might even put up their hand for mentoring duties if they realised it would polish their soft skills and boost their power base. Henley Management College introduced mentoring into its learning partnership and discovered new benefits for mentors as well as mentees. Mentors reported benefits of improved management of their own teams as a result of their mentoring activities, according to early feedback.

Nor is it necessary to wait until a formal programme comes along before you can get the benefit of receiving – or giving- free advice and insights. People often look outside their own organisation as a safe bet to receive informal tuition. There’s less danger of confidences being broken and a relationship with an IT director in a bigger organisation would offer valuable learning.

However, for IT directors who want to climb out of the IT silo, Manwani recommends a mentor with a different style and set of knowledge. rather than a straight repeat - only bigger and better - “Look for people who have access to the CEO and those with an instinct for where power base – who know whose stock is rising and falling within a company but to make a bigger impact within your own organisation.”

Socitm mentoring scheme
http://www.socitm.gov.uk/socitm/Professional+development/Mentoring+scheme/

Sheffield Hallam University research
http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/ciod/3/index.html

Mentoring for women in IT
http://www.mentorset.org.uk/