David Kennington’s career in information systems (IS) and information technology (IT) has spanned two continents and the age of the Internet. He’s helped Fortune 500 companies like J.P. Morgan and Prudential manage internal change as the Internet has revolutionized the way we work.
In the process, Kennington learned how to build consensus at a large scale, establish connections between disconnected factions of a business, and critically review processes to find the missing pieces.
All of this experience has driven Kennington’s unique expertise as a mentor, both through Everwise and for entrepreneurial students at Columbia University. For Kennington, mentoring is all about the power of a good chat — and of listening thoughtfully. Read on for more on Kennington’s approach to mentoring.
Have you had mentors in your career?
In my early career, I was assigned a mentor from the same department. He was an engineer who was senior to me so he had experience similar to mine, just more of it. We got along but struggled to make the mentoring relationship work.
Later in my career I worked with people with very different experience to my own and I learned many valuable lessons from them. For instance, at J.P. Morgan I worked for a guy who was an incredible salesman and learned that it is not sufficient for you and your team to be doing a good job; you have to be seen to be doing a good job.
At Prudential I worked for someone who had personal skills that I could just dream about achieving — he was especially masterful at defusing conflict. People looked up to him for that skill and he was always the go to person when there was a particularly big boundary spanning problem to be overcome. I learned from him that to resolve conflicts you must leave your personal feelings at the door.
You mentor through Everwise and Columbia University. How do these experiences compare?
I’ve been involved in mentoring at Columbia for a master’s program in technology management since 2007. As part of the program, students develop an entrepreneurial project and present their business case to a panel in a similar manner to Sharktank.
My role is to support the student assigned to me along the way and, in particular, help them develop a viable business plan. The experience always surprises me on how different each student’s needs can be. Sometimes, there’s not much I can teach a student. They’ve already worked at someplace like Goldman Sachs and they understand the logistics of making a business case for an idea. The opportunity here is often to help the student build a more collaborative approach that will make them more effective in the long term. Others come in thinking a good idea is sufficient for a business’s success. In the latter case, I’m there to help students develop a good plan: to assess the marketplace, identify threats and plan to mitigate them. Understanding ethics and how they are important to a business model is an important aspect of the final presentation.
Then Everwise popped up. And I decided I was interested in helping others in a different capacity. I’m not a narcissist. I don’t think everyone wants to listen to me. So I was a little unsure of myself when I started. It’s been a real education for me. With Everwise, the assignments revolve around listening. My proteges can have a conversation with me that they can’t have with others in the workplace and that is important.
What have you learned from mentoring that you would recommend others do?
I’m not sure I’m a typical mentor. I have no preconception of what makes a good manager because every situation is unique. In our early meetings, we just chat to get to know each other and I ask questions to better understand their work environment. When we get to the particular challenge that brings us together I do more listening than talking and only interject when I see that the protege can benefit from what I have experienced personally. I’ve accumulated experiences throughout my career, so I often have a real life experience that I can share and how it worked out for me.
My advice to mentors is just be prepared to listen. As a mentor, my biggest priority is providing a place for proteges to talk about their work and life in a way that isn’t available to them in the workplace. And they often find the solution to their problem themselves just by having the opportunity to talk about it openly.
One of your Everwise proteges said that you were able to help him navigate political issues in his workplace. What is your go-to advice for people navigating politics in an organization?
The most important aspect of managing politics is communication, whether that’s to customers, partners, or stakeholders. Make sure you have a clear message and then make opportunities to to deliver and reinforce the message to all who are engaged in what you are doing or will be impacted by it. Make sure you do not alienate anyone along the way however junior. The chances are you will need their support at some time in the future.
To wrap up…My son has a small company providing IT support to the dental profession. He is making the transition from one man show to small business and I have been attempting to help him make the transition. Of course, in a small company the problems you face are very different versus a large corporation and I have probably learnt more from my son than he has from me. This serves to emphasize the point that listening is critical whatever the situation.