Transformative mentorship, part 2: A mentor’s perspective on grooming fearless CIOs
This is part two of a series on the transformative power of mentorship for CIOs. The first part featured Linda Cureton, CEO of Muse Technologies and former CIO of NASA and Goddard Space Flight Center, among other federal agencies. This part features her 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.
At the age of eight, a teacher told me that I should not set my sights on a career in math or science because I was a “little black girl.” Rather than dissuading me, this only made me more driven. I excelled in STEM subjects in elementary and high school and studied math during my undergraduate and graduate years.
After completing my education, I learned that IBM was looking for systems engineers. At that time computer science was brand new, and many colleges and universities did not have computer science programs in place. Without computer science departments as a source of budding computer scientists, IBM looked for math and science majors who could think logically. I began my career as a systems engineer at IBM, and after climbing the corporate ladder, I left and was asked to manage IT for the US Department of Education (ED) in November 1994..
When the Clinger–Cohen Act installed CIOs at 24 federal agencies, I became the first CIO at ED, and eventually the first CIO at Housing and Urban Development (HUD). My greatest challenge as a first-time CIO was building an IT infrastructure from scratch. I revamped the infrastructure at ED and took HUD from an ill-performing agency in need of modernization to one of the top five in the area of IT.
Though I count this among the highlights of my career, my single greatest accomplishment was developing and teaching other new CIOs in government the new processes for EA: capital planning and project management. I completely modernized the infrastructure at ED and took HUD from being an ill-performing agency in need of modernization to one of the top five in the area of IT. I developed an incredible team, and they all went on to do great things.
Becoming a mentor: Do it strategically
I’ve never forgotten how Linda and I met. She had seen me featured in an article in an IT magazine and called my office to ask if I would consider mentoring her. My office staff initially turned her away, but when I learned that she had reached out, I asked my secretary to bring Linda in for a meeting.
What impressed me about Linda was her boldness. Many people wouldn’t have had the courage to contact a complete stranger, but Linda had the confidence to make it happen. Once I met her, I quickly learned that she possessed the qualities that make for a great CIO:
- Technical capabilities
- A strong desire to advance
- Leadership skills
- Strong, effective communications skills
I’ve seen my mentoring pay off several times over the course of my relationship with Linda. I felt so proud when I watched Linda face down some of the standard glass-ceiling issues in one of her job assignments. Rather than allow this negative situation — which for many incites feelings of anger and despair — get her down, she seemed even more energized to conquer those roadblocks in a professional manner. I saw Linda put a game plan in place, follow her plan, review her actions with me and define her path to face the challenge.
I have always been inspired by Linda’s can-do attitude and her persistence to move her career forward against unique challenges. I often felt like I was talking to another version of myself when talking to Linda. I reminded her that a CIO’s job is tough and encouraged her to stay in the fight and face challenges with courage and resilience. As I reflect, I realize that I learned from these words myself during times of great stress and difficulty.
For example, I was a senior executive government official during a presidential transition from a Democratic to a Republican administration. Applying the same advice I gave Linda, I rose above legacy partisan enmity to establish myself as a credible strategic partner. For these reasons, I was able to continue contributing through four years of the new administration.
Gloria’s advice for new CIOs
The most significant benefit for mentoring is that it is like talking to yourself. As I have mentored others in being a strategic advocate for the customer and technology, I found that it reinforced my own tenets of how to be a good CIO. When I mentor new CIOs, I offer them the following advice.
- Develop a vision. Know what you want for your department and organization, and be willing to do what it takes to get there.
- Craft a plan to make the vision a reality. Look at the resources you have — including your team — and begin building your strategy.
- Take the path less traveled. And don’t be afraid to take risks!
- Understand that you are there to support the organization’s mission. Also, be intimately familiar with your organization’s mission and all of its intricacies.
- Know how to use technology to help your organization accomplish its mission. But never confuse the agency’s real priorities. Recognize that although the organization needs the technology to reach its goals, the customer will always come first.
- Take ownership of your own career. Let’s be frank — no one else will.
- As CIO, you are the organization’s technology advocate, not a tech guru. Let talented people in your department do the guru work. As the CIO, it’s your job to represent the business side of IT to your fellow executives, not perform mundane, everyday tasks.
- Use soft skills to keep your team motivated. They might be techies, but they still need soft skills to maintain a good work environment and strong, motivational working relationships, both within your team and the greater organization.