What style of mentoring program is right for you?
Formal or informal--just what type of mentoring program works best for IT professionals? Opinions vary. Mentoring consultants maintain that informal programs lack guidelines and accountability, placing the emphasis on subjective criteria such as emotion or personality--in other words, "chemistry." Formal programs are focused, tied to business objectives, time-bound, and measured for effectiveness. These programs follow strict criteria for participation, for the training of participants, and for monitoring the process. Participants are challenged to learn new skills such as team building, communications, or time management. According to Rene Petrin, president of Management Mentors, in Lexington, Mass., mentoring is a "qualitative relationship that takes on specific dynamics with a focus on getting things done in a structured way. A formal, structured program is more egalitarian and compatibility is more important than chemistry. You need to develop a professional relationship--not [make] a best friend." Yet participants of informal mentoring programs believe just as fervently that it's the chemistry between the mentor and the apprentice that counts. Bill Slater, director of the mentoring program for the Chicago Computer Society, contends that mentoring is a personal, time-honored concept best described with a quote from Buddhist philosophy: "When the student is ready, the master will appear." Finding informal mentors is a challenge. Sometimes, an individual discovers a nurturing co-worker who provides help in understanding company culture. Other times, the search goes outside the corporate boundaries to support groups and professional organizations. For example, Women In Technology International (WITI) is filling the void by providing mentors at conferences. This creates the opportunity for women to make contacts and develop relationships outside their employer. And what do protégés look for in an informal mentoring relationship? They want answers to everything from resume writing to salary negotiations to how to climb the ladder to success. So which is better--informal or formal? It depends on the goals of your company and the goals of the individual. Interestingly, some will argue that although informal mentoring lacks the objectivity and structure of a formal program, it has a very interesting potential upside--recruiting. After all, if your mentor likes where he or she works maybe you will too. --A.H.