Getting to Know Mentoring Fundamentals by Calvin Bruce

Career success depends on achieving notable goals in four key areas: academic preparation, employment history, professional development, and strategic mentoring. Concentration on the first three areas to the exclusion of the last one can place severe limits on career growth.

Whether you work in applications development, consulting and systems integration, Internet and e-commerce, networking, operations or quality assurance, or some other aspect of Information Technology, the importance of developing strategies for effective mentoring cannot be overstated.

Mentoring is very important for minority IT professionals. The numbers of women and other minorities in the IT industry are low and can be discouraging for many. IT professionals can become frus­trated with the ‘silent obstacles’ that exist in the industry, thus making mentoring a venue to prepare and overcome them

Types of Mentoring

“Mentoring” can be defined in numerous ways. For purposes of this discussion, it can be viewed as involving critical information, timely communication, expert advice, and personal support offered by a seasoned professional for the personal growth and career advancement of a younger professional referred to as a “mentee” or “protégé.” This is a formal definition of mentoring. Before discussing mentoring in the formal sense, it’s instructive to consider several types of informal mentoring, beginning with the “inspirational” variety

Inspirational Mentoring

Someone you have read about, listened to, learned about in college, church or some social circle can serve as an inspirational mentor. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who hasn’t been inspired by his “I Have a Dream” speech? In a real way, Dr. King has mentored generations of African Americans who never knew him, but have been uplifted and inspired by his challenge to overcome self-imposed limitations and achieve success despite the odds. Other important historical figures can serve as valuable inspirational mentors, such as pioneers in the Information Technology field, including persons of color spotlighted in this publication. Similarly, men and women in other disciplines who have achieved membership in some actual or figurative “Hall of Fame” can inspire you to strive for educational self-enrichment and occupational advancement

Informal Mentoring

This category involves individuals whose career and life success you admire; who can steer you in a helpful direction regarding goal setting, professional development, employment selection, advancement on the job, or personal entrepreneurship. The possibilities for informal mentoring are numerous. Examples would include successful professionals in your personal circle of influence who take an interest in your education and subsequent vocational choices and livelihood. Included in this group, also, are persons in the clergy, business leaders, influential relatives or acquaintances, or other individuals who can provide helpful information, advice, and support at critical points in your life.

Academic Mentoring

Persons in academia can exert a strong, positive mentoring influence in a young professional’s life. They can provide valuable information and guidance regarding course selection, co-operative education and internship opportunities, and options for post-graduate training. Other academic contacts can be profitable for establishing a mentoring relationship. For instance, members of alumni associations, fraternities or sororities can demonstrate a special interest in current students or recent graduates with career aspirations in fields similar to their own. Such interest can blossom into regular communication and career guidance that help young protégés to advance as budding professionals in their chosen discipline.

Without a doubt, most successful IT professionals can point to one or more notable professors or college administrators who steered them in a helpful direction as they matured intellectually and achieved their academic goals and personal aspirations.

Workplace Mentoring

A more formal type of on-the-job mentoring involves seasoned professionals linked with younger workers. Experienced professionals who are assigned to “show the ropes” to younger employees serve a valuable purpose. Specifically, they alert eager and ambitious protégés to the reality of what it takes to succeed in the corporate world. Their tutelage typically covers such matters as playing smart office politics, demonstrating a good work ethic, building a reputation for excellence, choosing the right career path, and preparing for promotional opportunities. For example, a junior software engineer is matched with a senior SE in a large corporation offering numerous career paths. Through regular contact, the senior engineer evaluates the younger protégé’s progress, offers suggestions for performance improvement, and helps him avoid the workplace pitfalls that await unsuspecting employees.

In addition, the senior member of the mentoring team can sponsor the protégé’s membership in professional societies, introduce him to other “movers and shakers” within the industry, and write letters of reference when it’s time to make a career move.

Workplace mentors are valuable for other reasons. Depending on how close they are to their protégés, they can serve as a “sounding board” when their younger counterparts need to vent job-related frustrations. Furthermore, they can prod them on when they feel discouraged and help them make a “reality check” when workplace situations seem confusing or overwhelming.

As discussed, many persons can serve in a mentoring role. Often mentors and protégés gravitate toward one another. For instance, an exceptional student is drawn to a distinguished professor who admires her drive and potential, and who is willing to offer mentoring guidance throughout the student’s academic career. Who do you greatly admire and wish to emulate to some degree in terms of academic achievement, intellectual prowess, and career success? These are the kinds of individuals to link yourself with in terms of informal and formal mentoring.

There can be overlapping mentoring relationships. For instance, your direct superior on the job might move into some other department or division of the organization and still take an active interest in your career progress. The mentoring relationship may become more informal than formal, but be just as valuable in providing career guidance—even as a new boss “takes you under her wings” and guides your advancement within the organization.

When selecting a beneficial mentor, it is important to be patient and focused. Finding a good mentor is like finding a good spouse. It is a long-term proposition, not one to be rushed into. Take your time to identify someone who has been there, done that, and has the T-shirt to prove it.

The key ingredients for development of effective mentoring are both parties understanding each other’s expectations of the relationship, open communication, understanding professional and personal goals, and devoting ‘quality time’ to the relationship.

You should know what you want professionally. Learn how to network and collaborate with other IT professionals and mentors. Understand what a mentorship program entails. When seeking a good mentor, make sure he/she is the right mentor for you. And never give up—mentorship is a relationship that takes time to develop.

The best mentors were themselves mentored. They understand the importance of “giving back” to those who are literally or figuratively following in their footsteps. As you advance in your chosen field, it’s important to be willing to share insight, advice, and guidance with younger professionals who are preparing to launch their careers. In the same way others have inspired you to achieve great things, be prepared to serve in a mentoring role for others who emulate your success and professional stature.

Calvin Bruce, an Atlanta-based freelancer, has 20 years of recruitment experience, including Information Technology. He has published articles on career management for numerous professional publications such as Minority Engineer, Careers and the Engineer, and Journal of the National Technical Association.

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