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5 Tips for Mentoring IT Employees

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Mentoring can make all the difference to an employee who simply needs some guidance or direction, and is often a win-win for both mentor and mentee.

Credit: ShutterstockCredit: ShutterstockThe mentor role is one of a trusted advisor who provides support and encouragement, and points out opportunities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or seem unattainable. As a mentor, you are probably at a point in your career where your mentee wants to be someday. It's your task to gently steer that person toward developing those skills, behaviors and habits that can help them achieve their own successes.

Whether an employee is new to an organization or the field of IT, or is looking to make a lateral move, working with a mentor offers great advantages. Mentees tend to develop skills more quickly, create richer relationships and larger networks, and skirt pitfalls.

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Mentors may feel an increased sense of purpose by seeing another person's life change for the better, and they can sharpen their own leadership skills along the way. The observation that employees who are mentored tend to stay with an organization longer than others who are not is also a plus for senior management.

Establish Realistic Expectations

It's best to start a mentor-mentee relationship by determining what each of you intends to draw from it and then to set realistic expectations. Start by sharing your goals for the relationship and agree to work toward achieving them.

Where does the mentee see himself or herself in one year? What about five years? How much personal time does the mentee have or is willing to devote to career building? And what do you get from being a mentor? It's important for both parties to be open and honest when laying the foundation for a mentoring relationship.

You should also agree to some length of time over which you intend to continue the relationship, such as six months or a year. Establishing a method and frequency of communication is also important. For example, you could agree to meet face to face for 15 to 30 minutes after the weekly departmental meeting, supplemented by emails throughout the week as needed.

Constructive criticism is both difficult to deliver and accept, but is a necessary part of professional growth and development.

Teach Them How to Fish…

Your goal in teaching is to help your mentee learn how to solve problems on their own. Good decision-making and problem-solving skills are invaluable to employees and employers alike.

For example, you might not have the time or background to show someone how to configure a new network interface, and that's okay because it's not necessarily your job. The heavy lifting is the employee's responsibility. But you should point out resources and discuss potential approaches. Ask open-ended questions to help the mentee work toward a solution, which helps that person tackle similar situations down the road.

Encourage your mentee to meet difficult situations from the perspective of a challenge to be overcome, like solving a puzzle or winning a game. Although a large, pressing issue may seem overwhelming, most problems can be broken down into smaller, more approachable steps. A step-wise approach fosters critical thinking and helps maintain calm and poise when a situation escalates.

Advise and Facilitate

As a mentor, your role is to be supportive — to encourage, not dictate. Constructive criticism is both difficult to deliver and accept, but is a necessary part of professional growth and development.

Let's say your mentee just came out of a meeting with a difficult client and is relaying the high points of the conversation, and inadvertently reveals an instance where he or she responded inappropriately. Ask the mentee how the situation could have had a better outcome.

Was more time needed to prepare for the call? Does the client simply not understand the technology well and gets frustrated? Explain that, many times, clients are under intense pressure to complete projects under challenging constraints. Then talk about potential ways to build a better relationship with the client and move forward. Remember, mentees need feedback, not sympathy or an iron hand.

Don't take yourself too seriously, and don't treat mentoring as an opportunity to wax poetic on your own accomplishments and near failures.

Be a Model

Successful people are generally happy both at work and in their personal lives. They care about their organization and the people they work with, and they find sincere satisfaction in others' accomplishments. A leader, as well as a mentor, inspires people around them to believe in and implement a plan.

"Lead by example" is a key to mentoring. Conduct yourself at work in the same manner you want your mentee to act. Be authentic. Don't take yourself too seriously, and don't treat mentoring as an opportunity to wax poetic on your own accomplishments and near failures. The IT world moves at a brisk pace; approach mentoring in the same way. Your goal is to help your mentee to develop and grow, not avoid you or feel trapped in your presence.

Identify and Recommend Opportunities

A great mentor looks for ways to help a mentee build skills and beef up a resume. Find out what type of training would be most beneficial to the mentee. Suggest a visit to the HR department to find out about paid training in which the organization is willing to invest. Also suggest free IT training that can be performed on the person's own time.

Are there certain IT certifications the mentee should pursue? Some promotions may require one or more certifications to validate a person's skills and knowledge.

Are there any leadership or project management opportunities within the IT department? Leadership skills are best honed on the job. Encourage the mentee to begin by volunteering as the lead on a portion of a project, or act as the liaison between the software developers and network group for a new initiative.

Mentors typically have a large network of IT professionals they can tap for expertise and advice, and should be willing to share such important contacts with mentees. Enough cannot be said as to the benefits of being introduced to the right people with the power to make things happen.

Be open to the notion that employees often have great ideas, sometimes better than yours. Younger employees in particular are likely to be more in tune with new and emerging technologies, and be fascinated by innovation. A mentor should be able to recognize a person's true interests and encourage them to focus on that path. A mentor is also well-positioned to support the mentee in recommending new and better approaches in the workplace.

Moving On

Mentoring is an inexpensive but highly effective method of building a better workplace and should be part of every organization's culture. It doesn't have to be a formal undertaking with lots of documentation, but both parties must be willing to commit time and energy to the process.