by Barbara Kunkel

Lessons for the Mentor: Helping Young Professionals Grow

Oct 15, 20066 mins
IT Skills

For more than 20 years, I’d coached youth soccer. I took immense pleasure in developing, guiding and motivating young players, both on and off the field. In turn, their enthusiasm energized me.

Six years ago, unfortunately, I had to put my coaching on hold to deal with my mounting responsibilities as CIO of a growing national law firm. But when a series of mergers led to a significant increase in my department’s workload, I saw a new way to help young people learn and develop their potential. I initiated a summer college internship program to fill the resource void and, at the same time, help young women pursue careers in IT. At Nixon Peabody, only about 40 percent of the IT staff are women, and this percentage continues to shrink as it gets harder to find women with technical skills. Mentoring female summer interns, I thought, could draw more women into my department and into IT. I had no idea what lessons were in store for me over the next several years.

It was as if I were stepping onto the soccer field for the first time in my life.

What I Learned from Anna

Anna, our first summer intern, joined the department in 2001 after she completed her first year as a computer science major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her first week of orientation included an overview of the firm and its technology tools. Her first assignment, reporting to the supervisor of desktop support, tested her knowledge of hardware and put her on the front line with the internal customers. Anna adjusted quickly and appeared to enjoy the work. She was technically competent, a natural. But in checking with both her and her supervisor, I learned that something wasn’t right.

The supervisor felt Anna was too shy, and the independent nature of the work did not suit her. Anna, in turn, wanted more challenges and more feedback, and she wanted to be more connected to the organization through group projects.

I dropped by Anna’s office one afternoon and asked her to join me for ice cream at the mall next to our building. As we chatted about her sports activities from high school, her shyness melted. I learned quite a bit about how differently her generation views school, work and careers. We sat for two hours, laughing about stories from my generation (for instance, how my friends thought it would be funny to shuffle a sequence of computer punch cards so that my program would not run correctly). Her stories were similar in tone, except the tools and venues were IM, chat rooms and cell phone photos.

With only six weeks left before Anna returned to school, we had reached a fork in the road. I discussed the situation with my managers and we decided to reassign Anna to a Web development project, working closely with another developer and a business analyst. It demanded that she “come out of her shell,” relate to users as a member of the IT team, and act more independently and creatively. Before returning to school, Anna developed a Web-based BlackBerry request form as part of our service request system that both improved service request efficiency and enhanced her internship experience.

Anna had changed from a shy, quiet individual to an energized contributor to the team. She relished the experience and looked forward to returning to our firm the following summer. And these five lessons I learned from her about the next generation remain etched in my brain.

  1. A structured work environment that clearly links the interns’ assignments to the overall objectives of the organization reinforces the idea that the work matters.
  2. Working in teams is far more desirable than working independently.
  3. Demanding that interns think creatively makes the work much more rewarding.
  4. Communication is essential! They thirst for feedback.
  5. The personal touch and a social environment are important aspects of their work experience.

How I Applied Anna’s Lessons

In 2004 I wanted to expand our strategic planning process to include benchmark data on the effective use of technology at other law firms. To do that, we hired two college interns for the summer, Katie and Bridgette. This time, the interns would work directly with me.

With the help of my staff, I designed a “work curriculum,” similar to a college course. This provided the framework that linked the interns’ assignments to the project objectives. Katie and Bridgette started their work by meeting with me to discuss expectations. By the end of the session, I could see their creative wheels whirring, but the task’s scope intimidated them. However, a pep talk provided them with the confidence they needed.

As with Anna, the first week of orientation included an overview of the firm and its technology tools. However, as part of their assignment, Katie and Bridgette were each to craft an e-mail, addressed to the entire IT department, introducing themselves. I laughed when I saw the first e-mail, with the subject line “A little more info about the mysterious girl in the corner.” It was both humorous and engaging, and it generated a whirlwind of interaction in the department. The interns were off to a great start. I was confident their social needs were going to be met right away.

It was important for me to assess their communication skills because this assignment required meetings, phone calls and e-mail with senior management, department heads and CIOs at other firms. I decided to give Katie and Bridgette some frank advice. “Relationship building is everything,” I told them, “and cryptic instant messaging will be the demise of your assignment.” I also requested that they e-mail me a 100-to-300-word weekly summary every Friday, telling me what they’d learned while reporting on the project’s progress. Every Monday morning, I’d give them feedback. This process fostered a continuous, open dialogue.

At the end of the summer, Katie and Bridgette had to give a PowerPoint presentation to the department heads, summarizing their project. Their performance was impressive, and in fact, it’s one of the highlights of my career—the equivalent of building a dream team for the soccer season. The field of play may be different, but the goal remains the same: nurturing talent through good mentoring.