Transformative mentorship, part 1: The power of a mentor for a new CIO
This is the first part of a series on the transformative power of mentorship for CIOs, featuring Linda Cureton, CEO of Muse Technologies and former CIO of NASA and Goddard Space Flight Center, among other federal agencies. The second features Linda’s mentor, Gloria Parker, CEO of Parker Group Consulting and former CIO of the US Department of Education and Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A similar version of this story was originally published on IBM.com.
The late Warren Bennis, a distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Southern California, described mentoring as an active process of finding the small number of people who make all the difference in your life. I found this in Gloria Parker — and finding such a mentor was transformative for my early career as a CIO.
After 16 years at a large, mission-critical federal data center, I had done everything an aspiring technologist could do. I managed systems programming, the helpdesk, procurement, IT security, capacity planning and various other data center functions. After several years, I pivoted from managing things to leading people and hungered to move to the senior executive level.
Seeking a mentor: Taking the first step
I obtained my first senior executive position in the federal government and moved to a new agency as a freshly minted associate CIO. Though I knew a lot about technology, I knew little about being a strategic and inspiring leader. But by this point in my career, I understood both sides of the mentoring equation. Mentors give new employees a great start and increase their likelihood of success, providing encouragement, job insights and valuable, practical lessons. Finding someone to guide me in this way after I started my new job was critical.
The CIO who hired me left his position about one month before I started, and after some post-election attrition a few weeks later, I became the highest-ranking staff member remaining in the office. My prospects of finding someone to show me the ropes in my new organization had quickly evaporated.
As a minority woman in the IT community, I found few established professionals to whom I could relate that were willing to assist me as I attempted to settle into my new role. Though I had worked through my natural introversion to build a professional network, I was still unable to establish a relationship like this with anyone with whom I had an established rapport. Fortunately, desperation forced me to move out of my comfort zone.
Old school wisdom had taught me women don’t necessarily help each other professionally, but I ignored this “wisdom” and mustered the courage to make a cold call to a fellow African-American federal executive, Gloria Parker.
Developing a team: Learning from a master
When I learned about Gloria, it struck me that she seemed approachable and had what leadership expert John C. Maxwell described as a developmental mindset. She focused on building her team’s self-confidence. She told them that they needed to believe they could do whatever they set their minds to and never let anyone, including their own internal voices, tell them it would be too difficult. Over and over, she reiterated that they were going to be the best until they truly believed it — and she taught them the principles and techniques to excel.
At one industry event, Gloria relayed an anecdote in which a direct report told her she had never heard of enterprise architecture (EA) and didn’t believe it was something she could successfully take on herself. Gloria met with this report every week and taught her how to lead her team to create the first automated EA. This protégé of Gloria’s became the first chief architect for the entire federal government at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Needless to say, I was impressed, and after learning more about Gloria, I knew I had to muster up the courage to reach out to her.
Gloria has been an indispensable part of my professional development. Key areas that she encouraged me to focus on were:
- Developing my staff and building a solid, capable leadership team
- Making sure poor service delivery did not impact the CIO’s credibility as a strategic business partner
Early in my mentoring relationship with Gloria, I began applying these principles. While focusing on my leadership team and overall IT management, I improved my ability to navigate relationships with the new political executives at the federal agency. Gloria coached me to ensure my technology strategy matched customer needs. I applied this advice by focusing more on the business strategy of my organization. This continues to be a successful strategy I have used throughout my career.
Applying Gloria’s lessons
Gloria and I have continued our relationship for nearly two decades through several job changes and career transitions. After our initial contact in my first executive position, I moved to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as the Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Science and Technology. My science and information technology experience provided the opportunity for me to become the CIO of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and subsequently move to headquarters, where I was promoted to be the CIO of the entire agency.
While at NASA, I was challenged to lead the agency from a decentralized governance to a more federated approach. Doing so required establishing myself as a trusted partner to the NASA Administrator and his leadership team. While implementing new governance approaches, I still had to deliver innovative, mission-critical services to some of the most brilliant minds in the world.
Gloria taught me to always show employees that they are valued and to motivate them, no matter what their role. A common failing of CIOs is to devalue EA. As a mentor, Gloria conveyed to me the importance of EA — especially showing the architects themselves how valued they are. As a result of her teachings, I always made it a point to talk about their concerns, then relay what they told me to NASA’s leadership. She taught me to reach out to the EA community and make sure that they knew I cared — I often called out their hard work on the NASA CIO blog, which at the time was well-read and highly circulated.
I also made it a point to show that I was a part of their team as much as they were a part of mine. I included the enterprise architects in mapping out departmental strategies. I personally attended the quarterly departmental meetings, listened to the difficulties the team was facing, talked to them and provided any help I could. I’ve heard that I was one of the few CIOs within the government who actually attended these meetings, but to me, it just seemed like part of my job — and I know Gloria would agree.
I was particularly proud of the nascent work we did with cloud computing and the efforts that led to what is now OpenStack. At one point, we wanted to release some of the software that we had developed to the general public. In order to do this, we had to get NASA’s legal department to sign off on making it public. It was very difficult to convince lawyers of not only the technical merits of this, but also its societal benefits. And that’s their job — lawyers are naturally cautious — but I was convinced the benefits would outweigh the risks.
We held a long meeting to discuss the programs we considered releasing, and we finally got through all the issues the legal team had. In the end, the department head said he simply wasn’t comfortable releasing info that had previously been confidential. I told him that his comfort wasn’t actionable — I couldn’t help him with his comfort, but I could help him with mitigating risk. That ended the legal muck, and brought us to a point where we were able to release the software.
I couldn’t have done all this without Gloria’s teaching. I am thankful for the wisdom I gained from her, which focused on partnership, service delivery, courage and resilience, even in the toughest of situations. Even as Gloria has moved into semi-retirement, I have come to admire and emulate her continued generosity through community engagement and working with young people to advocate science, technology, engineering and math.
I am grateful to have developed a relationship with Gloria for nearly 20 years now. I admire both her professional and personal qualities. Like myself, she is a mathematician who loves technology and a warm, engaging and approachable person who is generous with her time and secure enough to share with others the secrets to her success.