Mentoring program strengthens IT workforce at Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At 8 a.m. on a Friday the smell of fresh-roasted coffee beans and the gurgle of steamed milk fill the air of Saint's Café in downtown State College. Customers ignore the noise, clicking away on their laptops or perusing the paper while sipping on espressos and lattes.

Sitting in their usual every-other-Friday corner booth adding to the din, Lindsey Marshall listens as her mentors, Pam Fuller and John Lathrop, offer advice and guidance.

Marshall is about halfway through IT Mentors, a nine-month mentoring program created as part of the IT Connects initiative to provide information technology (IT) staff at Penn State with networking, information and professional development opportunities.

Today, Marshall and her mentors are discussing her upcoming staff evaluation.

Marshall, an administrative support assistant in the College of the Liberal Arts’ IT department, is new to Penn State and is a first-time participant in IT Mentors. Her position in Liberal Arts is also new, and she is hoping the program will help her hone her organizational skills and channel her constant drive to learn.

“I’m creating my role in the position,” said Marshall. “I can sit back and follow directions, or I can jump in full force and come up with new ideas.” 

One of Marshall’s co-workers recognized her determination and encouraged her to apply for the mentoring program, where she was paired with Fuller, director of IT Planning and Resources, and Lathrop, manager in Penn State’s IT Service Management Office.

While faculty-student mentoring has always been on college campuses, the concept of mentoring staff and administrators is relatively new in higher education and rare in IT circles, where staff professional development often takes the form of technical manuals and certifications.

Now in its fourth year, IT Mentors has quadrupled in size with 23 mentor-mentee pairs and is at the forefront of developing IT leaders in higher education.

According to Ken Layng, an IT Mentors committee member, the program is primarily about helping employees through a personal relationship and giving them the tools and time it takes to achieve their goals and identify what they need to maximize their work satisfaction.

Prior to beginning the program, mentors attend an orientation session to learn about mentoring traits and strategies, including belief audits, emotional intelligence, goal setting and cultivating relationships. While most mentors in the program have not mentored before, they are selected because they demonstrate these traits.

Mentees and mentors are then brought together at a kickoff event where they are given a few early milestones aimed at establishing realistic, meaningful and challenging goals. All participants are encouraged to meet regularly — at least two hours each month — for the duration of the nine-month program.

Throughout the year, the IT Mentors committee promotes various opportunities to help foster the mentoring relationship. At the beginning of the program, all participants receive the "StrengthsFinder 2.0" book, which helps participants find their areas of strength and provides guidance on areas where mentees should focus.

Fuller suggested Marshall keep a “work journal” to help her recognize situations where she used one of her strengths and to catalog whether she was successful. If a situation didn’t turn out the way she hoped, Fuller asked Marshall to consider which one of her other strengths might have worked better.   

In addition to finding out from the assessment that she had a strong desire to learn and continually improve, Marshall discovered she also has a great deal of stamina and takes satisfaction from being busy and productive. Aside from her full-time job at Penn State, Marshall is also pursuing an online master’s degree in business administration and is due to have her first child in a few months.

“She has lots of energy,” said Fuller of Marshall. “She’s incredibly bright and motivated to reach all of her goals. While I’m sure that she can accomplish anything she puts her mind to, we are helping to redirect her focus so that she’s more intentional and purposeful about her goals.”

Fuller, who has served as a mentor in numerous capacities in the past, is empathetic to Marshal’s goals and serves as a nurturing sounding board. “Of the five jobs I’ve had at Penn State, four have been new — I understand where she is, and we’re very much the same. We have a very good synergy, in terms of where we go with thoughts and possibilities, and that’s been a joy for me. A true joy,” said Fuller of their mentoring relationship.

Lathrop brings a different perspective, yet a good balance, to the mentoring dynamic. For Lathrop, the program is all about building relationships throughout IT at Penn State. “Where Pam is more empathic and able to help drive Lindsey toward a purpose — rather than just drive — I’m all about what’s good for the business of IT at Penn State, the business of growing IT leaders,” he said.

Penn State IT comprises more than 60 IT units (consisting of more than 1,500 IT staff members) from throughout the University’s campuses, colleges, administrative divisions and departments, and the IT Mentors program draws from every IT cohort. Last year’s group consisted of 36 participants spanning four campuses, five academic units and four administrative units.

Studies show that mentoring leads to higher job satisfaction, career advancement, work success and future compensation. In fact, staff members who are mentored are less likely to leave the organization. Mentoring also plays a powerful role in getting new employees up to speed on the organizational culture, accelerating their integration into the organization and enhancing their effectiveness.

Fuller recognizes the successful impact the mentoring program can have on the future of IT at Penn State. “If the program can help develop someone like Lindsey into a leadership role, say a project manager position, IT at Penn State will definitely benefit from having someone with those skills.”

According to Layng, the success of IT Mentors can be measured through the tangible and intangible improvements and accomplishments of the mentees, such as new jobs within IT, new degrees or accreditations, increased confidence and a greater intrinsic sense of worth. “It’s also great to hear from those who’ve participated in the program and continue to maintain their mentoring relationship afterward,” said Layng.

On the other side of campus from Saint's Café, one of last year’s pairs, Diane Weller and Lori McCracken, are meeting at the Berkey Creamery to catch up with one another. During her participation as a mentee in the program, McCracken was promoted into a management position in the lab and classroom support unit — a positive job change she attributes to Weller’s mentoring and encouragement.

“There was a time when I wouldn’t speak up about my work or projects to others, I just quietly hoped my efforts would be noticed,” said McCracken. “Diane encouraged me to seek out and engage in conversations with senior leadership and she also reviewed my cover letter and resume and helped me to sell myself better.”

Weller, an accomplished IT professional in Penn State Information Technology Services who also specializes in the areas of performance consulting and professional coaching, said anyone can be a mentor. “We all have had personal or professional life experiences from which we can teach. It only requires an interest in others’ development and a willingness to invest time in others,” said Weller.

Even though the program has ended for Weller and McCracken, their mentoring relationship has evolved into a professional friendship that continues to flourish over periodic coffee (and sometimes Penn State ice cream) breaks together. Weller said she is grateful to have been able to help McCracken strengthen her leadership potential and is even more grateful they continue to meet and learn from each other.

Back at Saints Café, Fuller takes another sip of her coffee and a nibble of her lemon poppy seed muffin and offers Marshall one last piece of mentoring advice for her upcoming evaluation. “Just remember that it’s not necessarily about how many tasks you can list and check off as being done, it’s about the ones that you can say you’ve given 110 percent that show the true value you add to the organization,” advised Fuller.

Later in the day, Marshall reports her evaluation went well and she felt prepared and confident going into it. Likewise, she is grateful for the IT Mentors program and said she has learned a lot from Fuller and Lathrop.

“I’m very glad I joined IT Mentors. I’ve learned so much about where I want to go in my career and who I want to be. And it works with both my professional and personal life, which is really great,” said Marshall.

Penn State IT staff can learn more about IT Mentors at https://it.psu.edu/connects/it-mentors.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu.

Last Updated May 27, 2014