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CIO Unplugged – 8/1/09

August 1, 2009 Ed Marx No Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally, and are not necessarily representative of Texas Health Resources or its subsidiaries.

The Lost Art of Mentoring
By Ed Marx

Who taught you life skills? Did anyone coach you in the ways of culture and values? An uncle? Your grandma? The television?

I just watched the movie Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. In a nutshell, Eastwood attempts to teach the immigrant neighbor boy how to be a man. He starts by teaching Thao the skill of carpentry: how to hold a hammer, and which tools to always have on hand. Then he comically endeavors to educate the kid on manly talk and on how to act like a man. Eastwood verbalizes it, then demonstrates it, and finally observes Thao doing what he’d learned. The mission took time, money, energy, and the forging of a relationship, but it was worth it.

Some of us wish we had that mentoring experience. Speaking from experience, we all need mentors. When I became CIO of a large prestigious organization in my mid-30’s, I was both elated and scared. What accelerated my comfort and success were my mentors. Even with my experience today, I simply can’t grow without a mentor.

Dictionary.com defines mentoring as…an ongoing, planned partnership that focuses on helping a person reach specific goals over a period of time. Unfortunately, the art of mentoring has rarely caught on in the business world, healthcare included. We see this reflected specifically in the graying of existing leadership and the lack of succession planning.

This type of one-on-one interaction between individuals—lost somewhere after the apprenticeships of the pre-industrial age—has been replaced with short-term, focused leadership programs. These programs attempt to turbo-charge management education by cramming years of collective wisdom into a one-week synopsis. For example, the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) has an excellent leadership development program entitled “The CIO Boot Camp” that cannot keep up with the demand for enrollment. One reason for its popularity: it fills the mentoring void in today’s organizations.

Is mentoring beneficial in healthcare? Done right, both formal and informal mentoring programs can promote patient safety and implement clinical process change. Mentoring is key to building alliances within an organization and to ensuring a new generation of trained leaders. Committing to mentor another person is an investment in the long-term success of an organization, a selfless act of service for the sake of the profession and the future of healthcare.

This type of partnering also offers something a person might not get directly from their supervisor: broader experience, organizational perspective, and new skills.

For instance, an information technology professional will benefit greatly from having a CFO or CNO as mentor. Consider the differences between learning the technical aspects of one’s position and career versus learning leadership from someone else in authority, regardless of his background. In other words, an IT person should not enter a mentoring relationship with another IT person, lest their focus becomes overly familiar to their specialization.

Determining the appropriate mentor. Examine your strengths and weaknesses. A professional who lacks a strong clinical background should seek out their CMO/CNO or another well-respected clinician. Conversely, someone who already has a strong clinical background may want to seek out a CFO in order to gain key insights into the healthcare financial world. Seeking such mentors within your own organization offers the advantage of proximity and familiarity. Furthermore, the development of such relationships assists in the overall development of teamwork and connectedness. (Mentors from outside of the organization or healthcare might offer a level of anonymity and broad perspective, but they would lack the context for key elements of discussions.)

Mentoring Programs and Recruiting. Job candidates respond favorably when they understand that the organization cares for their professional development and will enable them to achieve career success. Over time, as the mentoring program becomes a major differentiator in recruitment efforts, your organization will become an employer of choice. Gallop has statistically demonstrated that an organization with a high level of engaged employees significantly outperforms non-engaged workforces in areas including customer satisfaction and financial results—both employee and employer win. Clearly, such programs lead to improved health in the corporate setting.

Mentoring Enables Clinical, Business, and IT Success. Most IT leaders have a clear understanding of their task: to leverage technology to enable clinical and financial success.

Much of this understanding however resides in head knowledge, not in transformative experience. Clinical mentoring, for example, would facilitate the adoption and understanding of what really takes place in the clinical setting. The IT leader gets first-hand experience and sees with their eyes what they had merely heard and read about.

Partnering an IT leader with a CMO or CNO will expose them to new insights and understanding. One academic medical center I know sends its IT leaders on annual short-term mentoring assignments to all of its clinical departments including ED, Radiology, Lab, etc. The CIO began routine rounds with physicians and residents. In each case, the mentor allowed the IT leader to experience the specific clinical care setting, answered questions, and discussed the critical intersection of IT and quality patient care. Each IT leader came back with a new sense of purpose and motivation. They in turn made immediate changes to IT systems and support to help ensure a higher quality of care.

Mentoring serves to develop future IT leaders. Given the limited pool of emerging leaders, mentoring becomes more critical than ever. Identifying and growing talent within our organizations is imperative. Our leadership effectiveness is not so much based on formal education and rigorous reading, but in real life, on-the-job experiences. Partnering up-and-coming IT leaders with members of executive leadership allows for this real life experience, accelerates growth, and ensures critical succession planning.

Restoring the Lost Art. We are the sum of our collective inputs. I credit my success to my mentors. I have been deliberate in this process. On even years, I mentor someone; on odd years, I am mentored. I require each of my direct reports to do the same. I’ve been formally mentored by health system CEO’s, COO’s, CFO’s, CMO’s and hospital Presidents. I have mentored many who have since moved into positions of authority. Check out the many resources available on establishing quality mentoring programs.

Resources. Anyone who posts a comment below or via FaceBook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, I will send to you a simple one page mentoring contract you can use to facilitate your own relationships. I will also send to you a list of “golden nuggets,” the bits of wisdom I have learned from being both a mentee and mentor.


Ed Marx is senior vice president and CIO at Texas Health Resources in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. (Use the “add a comment” function at the bottom of each post.) You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook, and you can follow him via Twitter – User Name “marxists.”

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