Bill Wood, CIO of bookstore chain Barnes & Noble, has always incorporated a formal mentoring and coaching program into his leadership style. "As I was getting started as a manager, there were people who poured themselves into me and helped me grow as a leader," says Wood, who joined Barnes & Noble as CIO in December 2015. "As a result, I have always had a 'pay-it-forward' attitude."
Wood knows that employees who have received negative feedback in the past can be reluctant to engage in mentoring, so he works hard to embed coaching and mentoring into his organization's culture at all levels. "Some people are not comfortable with feedback, because they come from cultures where you only hear from your boss when you've done something wrong," says Wood. "But that won't work in a coaching culture. Team members need to adopt a mindset that coaching is good for everyone. We clearly define the distinction between coaching, which is constructive feedback to help the individual develop as an individual contributor or leader, and progressive counseling to address gaps in performance — and ask that everyone keep an open mind to both types of feedback."
Upon arrival at Barnes & Noble, Wood worked with his leadership team to develop a vision statement for IT, then met with small groups of 5 to 7 people at a time from across the department to communicate that vision. "In those meetings, I talk about our vision of the kind of IT organization we want to be a part of, emphasizing values such as individual accountability, respect for the creativity and contribution of each team member, and personal development." Wood says. "We talk about my own personal experience of being mentored and why it is so important to me. I tell them that we don't just owe you a paycheck for a job well done — our leaders should identify the skills that you lack and could be keeping you from advancing, and then expose you to opportunities to develop those skills."
Mentoring requires a structured approach
Wood takes a structured approach to mentoring. He and his senior team meet regularly to identify high potential people who, with the right coaching, could advance to the next stage in their careers. "Whether they are on a technical or a management track, we identify those people who are doing well in their current jobs, but could also do a job one or even two levels up," says Wood. "We put those people into a formal mentoring program, but we also make it clear that if anyone else wants to be a part of the mentoring program, all they have to do is raise their hand."
Wood and his senior leaders talk to members of the mentoring program about the roles they are in today, the roles they want in two to three years, and the roles they want in seven to ten years. They then do a gap analysis of the skills the employee has now and the skills she will need to get to each of those next two stages.
Say a senior systems analyst wants to be a manager in three years and a director in seven. She and her supervisor start with listing the attributes of a successful systems analyst in one column, then for a successful manager in the second column, and for a successful director in the third. Then the analyst and her manager work together to identify the skills that the individual has and demonstrates, has but never has the opportunity to demonstrate, and finally, does not have at all.
Once the gaps are understood, the next step is to develop a plan for the employee to acquire or demonstrate the missing attributes. "It could be to take a course, lead a project or complete an assignment," says Wood. "We want the employee to have the biggest say in their own development plan, so we ask them to put together a list of action items, then the manager works with them to finalize the list and create a timeline for execution."
Say an employee's career path requires the skills to lead large meetings and provide status reports, but her current job never requires her to use those skills. That gap gets addressed by an action plan for her to lead a small project, where she is responsible for leading status meetings and providing updates.
Wood does not immediately ask employees to create a timeline for getting to the role that is five to seven years away. "Those attributes and action plans just sit there documented," he says. "As the employee works through the first action plan, we start to add detail to the second level because adding them all up front might make the road ahead a bit too daunting."
Wood finds that once an employee and manager begin documenting attributes and plans, the coaching happens very naturally. "The work of building an action plan alone provides an immediate opportunity for coaching and feedback," says Wood. "By assessing current attributes and talking to each other about the skills required to get to the next level, the individual and manager can have a frank conversation about where the employee currently stands in a very positive, encouraging environment. It also is a great opportunity for me to coach my leadership team on the skill of developing team members."
Once the manager and employee have created an action plan, Wood introduces a mentor into the process. The mentor is someone more senior in the organization with whom the employee meets for one hour a month in one-on-one sessions to review progress on their action plan and to give the employee the opportunity to seek advice or ask questions about a challenging situation. Wood thinks carefully about whom to assign to each mentoring situation. "I might see that the employee tends to run people over in meetings," he says. "So I pair him up with someone who has dealt with that problem and overcame it. Personally, some of the best advice I've ever received has come from mentors."
Wood has been utilizing this mentoring process for about 15 years and has found it to be very successful. "We've had a lot of people who felt they were ready for a role one level up, but when we identified the attributes that the new role required, they were not only shocked to recognize how unprepared they were, but were also energized because they saw so much opportunity waiting for them."
Building a coaching and mentoring program
Wood offers these three tips for CIOs interested in building an effective coaching and mentoring program.
1. Don't over promise
"When someone hears 'mentoring program,' they often think of a training program that guarantees them a promotion at the end," says Wood. "I make it clear to participants that we will work with you to gain new skills, but the onus is on you to do the work. We are your partner in developing your career, but we cannot guarantee that when a position opens, you will get it. We can only make sure that you have had an opportunity to develop those skills needed to compete for it."
2. Include technologists
Wood supports mentoring tracks for both managers and for technologists. "We avoid the trap of forcing everyone to become managers, when management is not everyone's strong suit. We need exceptional technologists in our organization and build action plans around that need, too."
3. Prioritize it
"When you have too many delivery obligations, you will be tempted to let a mentoring program fall by the wayside,” says Wood. “But when you do, you will never get out of that cycle. It’s worthwhile to invest time to coach someone who has 'lead projects' as a part of their action plan, and get them the skills needed for them to successfully lead them, which expands the bandwidth of our organization as we develop more leaders. By keeping the mentoring program at the top of my list, even when we get too busy, eventually I know that I will diminish the need for me to get in the weeds."
About Bill Wood
Wood is responsible for the IT, telecommunication networks and computer systems that support Barnes & Noble, as well as for allocating and evaluating the effectiveness of overall technology resources and strategies, and developing new systems. He was previously CIO at EZCORP.