CTO Mentoring: A swipe right for first-time tech leaders

“I would say the number-one hack—and it is a completely legal hack—to upgrade and fast-track a career is to get the right mentors. Whether it is reverse mentoring, whether it is in senior positions, whatever it might be, get the right mentors in place.”

Radu Palamariu for McKinsey

The mentor/mentee relationship is a powerful one and something that arguably no one in the tech world should be without. The reality, however, can be quite different — especially for first-time tech leaders and those in executive-level positions.

Recent research found that 75% of new business founders have used a business mentor and 39% have used a professional mentor. However, 40% of individuals who were thinking about starting their own business had no plans to speak to anyone for business advice.

While mentoring juniors is widely recognised as crucial to career progression, business growth and success, such guidance often grinds to a halt once people ascend the career ladder. We believe this needs to change.

Much like dating (albeit a lot less fun), identifying and matching with a mentor for executives and tech leaders can be deemed ‘complicated’. So, we at CTO Craft have decided to break it down and explain why CTO mentoring is essential and why it’s worth continuing the search for The One.

Why is CTO mentoring needed?

Developing as a manager is an ongoing process, and the opportunity to learn from others is always possible. First-time CTOs and tech leaders face new challenges: some can be addressed through common sense and transferable skills; others can’t. Management, strategic and hiring decisions will fall to them, and without the firsthand knowledge and experience to deal with them, mistakes can be made.

One such mistake is to assume that the responsibility for their growth and development lies entirely with the individual. New CTOs and tech leads will have clearly demonstrated their technological know-how and potential leadership capabilities. However, there remain additional, more comprehensive skills to gain, and it is worth emerging leaders and their businesses taking steps to address any gaps as there will be additional factors to consider.

Sometimes, thinking outside of the box and recruiting mentors externally may be necessary in order to find those with the right career history and repertoire. While this can be done by those who take career development into their own hands, research shows that it also pays dividends for businesses to take an active interest in mentoring programmes and provide these as a resource for employees at all levels. This is especially important with people moving into executive positions for the first time.

What are the benefits of CTO mentoring?

The advantages of having a mentor are numerous, and the benefits are wide-reaching. For the first-time tech leader, a trusted advisor can result in:

  • Time-saving and better decision-making
  • Faster problem-solving abilities
  • Learning and building non-tech skills
  • Networking opportunities and career advancement
  • Increased confidence.

The value of mentoring executives and tech leaders also extends further to businesses as a whole. In 2014, when the British Banking Association (BBA) investigated the impact of the Mentorsme initiative, it reported:

  • 75% of businesses improved investment readiness
  • 65% of businesses mentored reported a positive effect on international expansion
  • An increase in productivity by 67%
  • 60% increase in sales
  • 62% reported a positive impact on increasing product, markets and business services.

Reinforcing these findings, the 2014 Scale-up Report by Sherry Coutu CBE showed mentoring had a beneficial effect on growth. 87% of companies interviewed said that they would succeed during periods of rapid growth if it was easier to develop their leaders. The report also found that companies that were being mentored produced 23% more employment growth than other similar businesses.

With all that on offer, there really is no reason to ‘take it slow’ when starting the mentoring matchmaking process.

Where to begin

The first port of call for any senior manager within a company would be to look at what mentoring services and networks are available.

Before commencing a new role, ask what is on offer or, if already plunged in at the deep end, make it a priority during appraisals/meetings. In the event nothing is in place, your business programme is inadequate, or you’re looking to take charge personally, the answer lies then inside your network. Here, more experienced leaders can be found directly or through peer recommendations.

This can, however, be time-consuming, and we know tech leaders are notoriously time-poor. Luckily, this is where communities of practice like CTO Craft come in. The organically grown network brings a hub of skills, knowledge and experience together in one place to maximise mentoring opportunities and accessibility. It then becomes a matter of identifying the right person and taking things to second base: making it work.

4 steps for CTO mentoring success

Expanding on the Harvard Business Review research into CEO mentoring, we believe the key to making a mentor/mentee relationship work in the engineering management sphere is four-fold:

  • Trust and confidentiality — First and foremost, classified information may be at risk, so the connection has to be one that begins with clear rules of engagement, including the assurances that discussions will remain totally private.
  • Commitment and interaction — Mentors and mentees need to pledge allegiance to the relationship and invest their time. Regardless of whether some prefer regular, short meetings or lengthy, infrequent get-togethers, the key is to interact and for the mentee to feel assured of the mentor’s reliability.
  • Planning and managing expectations — From agreed objectives to proposed issues and time for reflection, meetings between mentor and mentee should have a structure to ensure the best outcome is achieved.
  • Storytelling — Telling tales rather than posing out-of-context questions is the best way to work through issues, as ‘setting the scene’ has been proven to evoke emotion and elicit empathy. Stories prove far more memorable than other forms of information/idea sharing and ultimately make for better problem-solving.

So, if you haven’t already considered mentorship, just imagine where Mark Zuckerberg would be today if Steve Jobs hadn’t taken him under his wing. Be thankful that all of what was shared and solved together culminated in the digital phenomenon that is Facebook and not the advancement of questionable fashion choices! And lastly, keep an eye out, as always, for the impact of AI on mentoring. Could this be pivotal in future matching?


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