The past five years of my career have been a whirlwind. I earned a master’s degree, met in a strategy meeting in the Situation Room at the White House as the Department of Transportation’s chief information officer (CIO) and am now a CIO for a major health care company. I couldn’t have made it to where I am now if I hadn’t taken a hard look at my career path.
I started my career in 1982 at Hewlett Packard (now HP) after earning a degree in electrical engineering. I stayed there for 35 years, eventually becoming the vice president of customer advocacy and chief of staff for the CIO. It was an important position, but it wasn’t the C-suite, and I couldn’t figure out how to break through to the top.
When I asked my boss, Steve Bandrowczak, for advice, his recommendation surprised me: To develop a broader understanding of how business and technology intersect, he thought I should go back to school and recommended Columbia University’s executive master of science in technology management. The program’s emphasis on using mentorship to help executives reach the next level of their tech careers persuaded me to apply.
At Columbia, I worked one-on-one with a mentor who had the C-suite experience that I was looking for while taking courses led by industry leaders and creating and defending a business plan. Steve, who later became the president and chief operating officer of Xerox, was already a mentor at Columbia, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without his guidance.
Seventy-five percent of Fortune 500 companies offer a mentorship program. I used to think such programs were only for people just starting their careers, but having a mentor at an advanced stage of my professional life was a game-changer that has given me skills to lead organizations into the future. Here’s why you should encourage your top executives to find a mentor:
Technology Advances Are Accelerating Faster Every Day
In a survey by Protiviti and NC State, executives identified keeping up with digital transformation as the No. 1 risk they face in 2019. Today, every company is essentially a technology company, and if you want your executives to be able to embrace these ongoing changes, they need a mentor to challenge their traditional ways of thinking.
Before having a mentor, I was well-versed in technology, but I needed to learn how to see the bigger picture to be effective in managing global operations and projects with varying and complex scopes. Executives across the board recognize the need for this skill; in a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of CIOs said that “business and leadership skills are more important than technology skills.”
Even Seasoned Executives Can Learn New Tricks
Professional development is often associated with entry or mid-level positions, but growth can happen at any point in a person’s career. Career shifts later in life are more common than you may think, and one study found that 82% of career shifts after the age of 45 are successful.
A mentor’s feedback helps experienced leaders address and close their knowledge gaps. I had technical abilities, but they’re not what keeps businesses afloat. Through my mentor, I learned how to think ahead and better anticipate the needs of the business.
You Can Have It All, but Not All at Once
Career paths are rarely linear, particularly for women, which is one of the reasons just 24 of last year’s Fortune 500 CEOs were women. While studying for an advanced degree in computer science in my late 20s, I became pregnant with my first child and fell sick. Work is important, but my personal life took precedence, so I had to drop out of my master’s program. Once my kids were grown up, I had the time to invest in elevating my career.
Big career changes don’t have to follow traditional timelines, and that’s OK. When a professional is ready to take that leap to the C-suite, having a mentor for guidance is crucial for bouncing ideas and learning from their successes and mistakes.
People Need Guidance (Even After School)
My mentor not only helped me realize I still wanted to learn and grow. He was also a support system while I went through my second graduate program at Columbia and has continued to be after I graduated. Many people can learn and develop, but more important is putting knowledge into practice. Good mentors will have already gone through many of the trials and tribulations that your executives are facing, and they’ll be able to prepare mentees for what’s to come as they progress in their careers.
I needed to master an executive mindset, and I was lucky enough to find the right person to help me reach my C-suite ambitions in under two years. It can be daunting for seasoned professionals to acknowledge what they don’t know, but addressing knowledge gaps is the first step toward training an executive to lead your company into the future.