Transformative mentorship, part 1: The power of a mentor for a new CIO

By Linda Cureton

This is the first part of a series on the transformative power of mentorship for CIOs, featuring Linda Cureton, CEO of Muse Technologies and former CIO of NASA and Goddard Space Flight Center, among other federal agencies. The second features Linda's mentor, Gloria Parker, CEO of Parker Group Consulting and former CIO of the US Department of Education and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After 16 years at a large, mission-critical federal data center, I had done everything an aspiring technologist could do — I managed systems programming, the helpdesk, procurement, IT security, capacity planning and other data center functions. After several years, I pivoted from managing things to leading people and hungered to move to the executive level.

Seeking a mentor: Taking the first step

I obtained my first senior executive position in the federal government and moved to a new agency as a freshly minted associate CIO. Though I knew a lot about technology, I knew little about being a leader. But by this point in my career, I understood both sides of the mentoring equation: Mentors give new employees a great start and increase their likelihood of success, providing encouragement, job insights and valuable, practical lessons. Finding someone to guide me in this way as a new CIO was critical.

The CIO who hired me left his position about one month before I started, and after some post-election attrition a few weeks later, I became the highest-ranking staff member remaining in the office. My prospects of finding someone to show me the ropes within my organization had quickly evaporated.

I found few established professionals I could relate to that were willing to assist me as I settled into my new role. Though I had worked through my natural introversion to build a professional network, I still struggled to build a relationship with anyone with whom I had an established rapport. Fortunately, desperation forced me to move out of my comfort zone, and I reached out to a well-known African-American federal executive, Gloria Parker.

Developing a team: Learning from a master

When I learned about Gloria, she struck me as approachable and had what leadership expert John C. Maxwell described as a developmental mindset. She focused on building her team's self-confidence. She told them that they needed to believe they could do whatever they set their minds to and never let anyone, including themselves, tell them it would be too difficult. Over and over, she reiterated that they would be the best until they truly believed it — and she taught them the principles and techniques to excel.

At one industry event, Gloria relayed an anecdote in which a direct report told her she had never heard of enterprise architecture (EA) and didn't believe it was something she could successfully manage herself. Gloria met with this report every week and taught her how to lead her team to create the first automated EA. This protégé of Gloria's became the first chief architect for the entire federal government at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Needless to say, I was impressed, and after learning more about Gloria, I knew I had to reach out to her.

Gloria has been an indispensable part of my professional development. Key areas that she encouraged me to focus on were:

  • Developing my staff and building a solid, capable leadership team
  • Making sure poor service delivery didn't impact the CIO's credibility as a strategic business partner

Early in my mentoring relationship with Gloria, I began applying these principles. While focusing on my leadership team and overall IT management, I improved my ability to navigate relationships with the new political executives at the federal agency. Gloria coached me to ensure my tech strategy matched customer needs, and I applied this advice by focusing more on the business strategy of my organization. This continues to be a successful strategy I have used throughout my career.

Applying Gloria's lessons

Gloria and I have continued our relationship for nearly two decades through several job changes and career transitions. After our initial contact in my first executive position, I moved to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as the Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Science and Technology. My science and IT experience provided the opportunity for me to become the CIO of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and subsequently move to headquarters, where I was promoted to be the CIO of the entire agency.

At NASA, I was challenged to lead the agency from a decentralized governance to a more federated approach. Doing so required establishing myself as a trusted partner to the NASA administrator and his leadership team. While implementing new governance approaches, I still had to deliver innovative, mission-critical services to some of the most brilliant minds in the world.

Gloria taught me to always show employees they are valued, no matter what their role. A common failing of CIOs is to devalue EA. As a mentor, Gloria conveyed to me the importance of EA — especially showing the architects themselves how valued they are. As a result of her teachings, I always made it a point to talk about their concerns and relay them to NASA's leadership. I often called out the team's hard work on the NASA CIO blog, which at the time was well-read and highly circulated.

I also showed them I cared and that I considered myself a part of their team. I included the enterprise architects in mapping out departmental strategies. I personally attended the quarterly departmental meetings, listened to the difficulties the team was facing, talked to them and provided any help I could. I've heard that I was one of the few CIOs within the government who actually attended these meetings, but to me, it just seemed like part of my job — and I know Gloria would agree.

I was particularly proud of the nascent work we did with cloud computing and the efforts that led to what is now OpenStack. At one point, we wanted to release pieces of the software we developed to the general public. In order to do this, we had to get NASA's legal department to sign off on making it public. It was difficult to convince lawyers of both the technical merits and societal benefits of this. And that's their job — lawyers are naturally cautious — but I was convinced the benefits would outweigh the risks.

We held a meeting to discuss the programs we considered releasing, and we finally got through the issues the legal team had. In the end, the department head said he simply wasn't comfortable releasing info that had previously been confidential. I told him that his comfort wasn't actionable; I couldn't help him with his comfort, but I could help him with mitigating risk. That ended the legal muck and brought us to a point where we were able to release the software.

I couldn't have done all this without Gloria's teaching. I am thankful for the wisdom I gained from her, which focused on partnership, service delivery, courage and resilience, even in the toughest situations. Even as Gloria has moved into semi-retirement, I have come to admire and emulate her continued generosity through working with young people to advocate science, technology, engineering and math, and I am grateful to have cultivated this enduring relationship.