The power of mentorship in the war for IT talent

IT talent remains scarce but is vital to every organisation’s success. Effective mentoring is a way of attracting and retaining IT talent − here's how.
Candice Booysen
By Candice Booysen, Human resources director, Interconnect Systems.
Johannesburg, 11 Dec 2023
Candice Booysen, human capital director, Interconnect.
Candice Booysen, human capital director, Interconnect.

As business has digitalised over the past few decades, IT has become a key business skill, a lever for improved profitability and competitiveness. The emergence of the so-called application economy and now the momentum behind artificial intelligence have greatly accelerated this trend.

In short, IT skills are an increasingly important part of any organisation's human capital. However, a number of factors make attracting and retaining these individuals a challenge.

In particular, few HR departments realise the powerful impact that an effective mentoring programme can have.

To begin with, it's important to recognise that the Millennial cohort (Generation Y) is the primary source of these skills. Goldman Sachs research indicates the Millennial cohort is the largest in United States history, and is expected to make up three-quarters of the workforce by 2025.

Mentorship is teaching people how to think, not what to think.

Millennials, the first digital natives, have a number of distinctive requirements from work that differ from those of previous generations. They value experience as much as salary, and are attracted by companies that offer scope for personal and professional development − something that's particularly relevant in the fast-moving world of IT.

Millennials want a workplace that values them, is characterised by innovation and that offers a large amount of workplace freedom; anywhere/anytime work styles are now thoroughly entrenched in many businesses.

These Millennials change jobs more frequently than previous groups − in the technology field, the employee churn is around 15% to 20%.

Millennials are particularly drawn to companies characterised by transformative leadership, which provides intellectual stimulation, is authentic (walks the walk), is inspirational and motivational, and has a genuine concern for employees' needs at an individual level.

Millennials want to be led by creative, innovative and creative people, and they will follow such leaders. The opposite is also true: talent really does leave leaders. According to McKinsey, the top reason people leave companies is because of uncaring leaders.

Mentorship is one of the most important ways in which transformative leadership is experienced − a good mentor will provide the developmental framework for a younger colleague and will demonstrate that his or her contribution is valued.

A mentor will necessarily have to understand what the mentee's individual needs are, acting as the visible expression of the company's acknowledgement of the employee's individual worth.

And finally, a good mentor will instantiate the inspirational and motivational aspect of transformative leadership.

Here are six musts of mentorship:

Remove the shoulder pads: Mentorship has to be authentic and transformative, ultimately ending in the mentee surpassing the mentor. It is not a fashionable accessory, like shoulder pads once were!

Empower through independence: The end goal is for the mentee to stand on his or her own two feet. Mentorship is teaching people how to think, not what to think.

Promote holistic growth: In the anywhere/anytime workplace, professional and personal development are equally important in order to ensure a meaningful life journey.

Become a boardroom sponsor: A good mentor uses his or her position and network to further the aspirations of the mentee.

Be open to reverse mentoring: In this situation, the mentee is able to offer guidance to the mentor − the latter gains valuable new information, while the former receives the message that knowledge and wisdom flow both ways. Openness to reverse mentorship is particularly valuable in IT given its fast pace of change.

Assess the room: To provide value, mentors have to consciously strive to improve their own skills and knowledge. In the process, they will demonstrate the power of continuous learning.

As always, there are also don'ts:

Don't kill the fun: Mentorship is a relationship and, as such, it needs soil in which to grow. Establish what you have in common in the way of outside interests to deepen the connection.

Don't project your fears: Mentors must strike a balance between helping mentees shorten their learning curve and learning from experience. It's vital that mentors do not project their fears onto mentees.

Be a steward, not a parent: The mentorship relationship is not about control, but aims to offer guidance and facilitate the growth of the mentee's ability to make good decisions.

Don't try to be the hero: A good mentor is vulnerable enough to show his or her battle scars, and in the process, creating a safe space for the mentee to experiment and grow.

Be consistent: Mentors have to be there for their mentees through the lows as well as the highs, celebrating successes and supporting them through the tough times.

Mentorship is something of an art and requires the exercise of judgement to balance gentle correction with the space to make mistakes, and even to accept mentorship from the younger person.

Great mentoring plays a role in attracting and especially retaining top talent − it's truly the secret ingredient of a winning HR strategy.