by Karan Sorensen

Why Mentoring Creates Competitive Advantage

Aug 13, 20086 mins
Business IT AlignmentIT LeadershipMentoring

Mentoring your team creates an IT department that is better able to compete for talent and business advantage, says the CIO of Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development.

Developing people is part of my job. To me, part of our responsibility as executives is to ensure that a pipeline of diverse capabilities exists—and not just in our own departments. Many CIOs get tunnel vision when it comes to developing their staffs. They may only focus on developing one area at a time, such as technology, project management or business relationship management skills. But it’s wrong to go after one competency; the skill sets of employees becomes lopsided. You need a balanced organization that reflects people’s different strengths and covers all your bases.

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Because I’m nuts about employee development, I’ve raised the bar for my peers; others can see how I work with employees. Some of my peers come to me for mentoring and coaching advice. As a result, my colleagues’ attitude toward me has changed over the years. They look to me as a leader in helping drive employees to fulfill their managers’ expectations.

I have demonstrated my involvement in companywide employee development. For example, I help champion board-level sponsorship for some of our diversity groups, such as our Hispanic leadership development organization and a group for women’s leadership. Because I’m visible as a mentor, I get calls from people ranging from college graduates just entering the company to VPs within and outside of IT who want to discuss their futures or run an idea by me.

Since IT has become ubiquitous within the business, developing employees across the organization should be a strong competency for the CIO. The more people know about IT and how their jobs relate to IT, the better the company will be. Becoming a champion of corporate employee development starts with your IT team. Here’s how we set an example for developing staff for the benefit of the entire company.

A Team Effort

You can’t help everyone on your staff meet their career goals by yourself. I hold my direct reports accountable for developing the employees under them. At least twice a year, my leadership team and I talk about every employee and we all contribute to the conversation about individuals’ strengths, weaknesses and growth potential. Then we set goals for each of them and determine how much help they need to achieve them.

We don’t just talk about what people need, but also how they are going to get it. Other places may focus on the “what” but not the “how,” which is a key element to our conversations. It puts the managers on the spot because they have to come up with the solution right then and there.

My managers and I give employees regular feedback on their progress. A lot of times, managers focus on organizational development once a year and choose performance reviews as that time. But if you compare employee feedback to having quality and process control, you can see why feedback needs to be frequent. You don’t wait until your product is finished to test it. If you wait until the end and the product is bad, you have spent time, money, resources and raw materials only to be left with wasted inventory.

When we give constant feedback to employees, they’re more likely to be able to act on it than they would be if you wait six months to tell them. Being busy shouldn’t be an acceptable excuse for skimping on feedback, because focusing on employees should be a priority. You can be quick and to the point—a voice mail or an e-mail often does the trick. That tiny amount of time has huge ROI in the loyalty, growth and development of people who will deliver more for the company.

To ensure I make the time, I commit all day every Friday to people development, coaching and mentoring—either one-on-one or with a group. It’s important for those in the organization to know that leadership is committed to their development. I can see people appreciate my devotion because of the many employees who seek me out for advice. Being a mentor not only helps to develop in-house staff, but also to recruit top-tier talent.

How Staff Development Helps Business

I’ve also created developmental rotations, which place technology people in business roles for six to nine months so they can get closer to that business. One gentleman worked in IT delivering database systems for the pharmacogenomics team, which focuses on the influence of genetics on drug response. We assigned him to their laboratory. He learned how to use their equipment, such as how to run DNA scans. When he came back to IT, he had a much better understanding about what he should be doing with their IT systems.

When IT staff do such rotations, we see a whole change in their approach to their jobs because they saw first-hand the sense of urgency that business has and where their real priorities are. Benefits such as cost reductions, increases in efficiency and simplification of processes come out of that experience, helping the company overall.

Meanwhile, managers in the company see these employees as prime candidates to export out of IT. Ten years ago, if you were in IT, you were just in IT—not part of the business. But when we focus on developing employees, we demonstrate how their technical savvy, business understanding, leadership and ability to understand and elicit change are critical to business success.

I’ve also had businesspeople come over to IT. We don’t just stick them on a computer and make them crunch out code; I like to teach them how to do IT project management so they can understand what it takes to deliver an IT system.

Become a Talent Magnet

When we focus on individuals’ career development, we lift our organization’s reputation externally. People want to work here because they see what we do to develop our employees. When you’re competing for the best-in-class talent, our kind of culture is a differentiator.

I’ve had people turn down jobs at other companies with higher salaries to work with our group because they were looking for challenging work and opportunities for growth that would help their careers.

We need exceptional talent now to stop business decline. The pharmaceutical industry is going through a tough patch. Some leaders take the pessimistic path, focusing on what they can’t do because of their budgets. I see this as the time where we need creativity. We can’t afford to do things the way we used to.

Employees who are engaged in their careers and whose success is aligned with that of the company will help us to reform time-wasting activities, processes or systems. They’ll help us to figure out which of the things we do that are really important.

Karan Sorensen is VP and CIO at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development and a member of the CIO Executive Council.