NZCS ponders the gentle art of people management

Mentoring shouldn't be mistaken for training, says practitioner

Mentoring is sorely needed in the ICT industry — particularly in New Zealand, with its many solo IT operators and small- to medium-sized companies, say NZ Computer Society members.

At a recent Wellington get-together, the society discussed the difficulties faced by those working in small businesses with limited IT knowledge. This often makes it hard to take the next career step, says Clare Nixon, secretary of the NZ Computer Society’s Wellington Branch.

The society recognises this dilemma and sees one of its tasks as providing some guidance, but a one-on-one relationship with someone in the industry — or, sometimes, outside of it — is often more useful, say members.

The society now has a formal mentoring programme, coordinated by experienced IT practitioner Liz Eastwood. “I wanted to give something back to the industry after all these years,” she says.

Mentoring needs to have careful boundaries drawn round it, so as to distinguish it from other closely-related areas, says Eastwood. Mentoring is not the same as training — a mistake some people make. Training involves the inculcation of skills which enable people to do their jobs and is something employers supply, says Eastwood. In contrast, mentoring involves guidance in the interests of longer-term career goals.

However, a need for mentoring can arise as a result of an internal promotion, says Wellington branch chairman Don Robertson. Technically-excellent people promoted to team leadership positions can find they need to develop management and leadership skills. An outside mentor can help here, if only by pointing people in the direction of training sources.

A relationship between a mentor and the employer should be “part of the deal” pointed out another society member.

Robertson says he has acted as mentor to a number of people. One of his protégés had asked: What’s going to be the next big wave and how do I get on it?

“[But] a mentor should not tell you what to do, but [rather] should ask you the questions you should be asking yourself,” commented Robertson.

Mentoring is also not be confused with consultancy, says consultant Jim Higgins. A mentor is not there to advise on how to tackle a particular project.

Mentoring fits well with the Computer Society’s plans for professional certification (see Computerworld, May 16, page 5), as a mentor can evaluate candidates' skills as they progress and advise the society when they are ready.

But an effective mentor, the meeting agreed, could also come from outside the ICT world, and such a person could provide a disinterested view provided, of course, that they have some knowledge of the industry. Such a person could be particularly helpful when it comes to the development of management and people skills, which might benefit from exposure to a broader view.

The NZCS provides printed guidelines for mentors and their protégées on what they can expect from its mentoring programme.

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