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How to make mentors a career lifeline

Mentors are crucial for women in tech, but the process can be murky. Here's how to make the most of mentorships.

Sharon Kennedy Vickers has multiple identities and a mentor for each. As a woman, she's leaned on other successful women climbing the executive ladder. As a Black technology executive, she has sought advice from other Black CIOs. And as a mom, she has maintained a mentoring relationship with a former college professor who, like her, knows what it's like to be an ambitious single parent.

For Kennedy Vickers, and countless women navigating their careers in the often-clubby corridors of the high-tech sector, mentorship is a lifeline for burnishing key competencies and skills, getting career counsel, and forging critical networking connections.

"Mentorship is important—not just in the technology space but in life," says Kennedy Vickers, CIO and a director in the Office of Technology & Communications for the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. "You need to have someone support you, lend their ear, and validate your experiences, especially in a field dominated by men."

Please read: The struggle to recruit and retain women in tech marches on

Mentors vs. sponsors

While made-it-to-the-top executives often credit mentors and sponsors for their rise, what these relationships entail and, more significant, how they differ can be nebulous. Mentors can be anyone who possesses the experience, skills, or knowledge you seek. They can be a direct colleague, an external acquaintance, or anyone crossing your path who exemplifies the qualities or has the wisdom you have identified desirable. It doesn't matter if they are male or female, and such relationships can be fleeting or last throughout the course of your career.

While mentors provide advice for honing a professional vision or meeting personal goals, sponsors are active advocates for your advancement. Sponsors leverage their connections and status to help land key assignments, secure promotions, and earn better pay. Both are critical assets for up-and-coming women trying to make their mark, especially in the world of high tech.

In particular, mentorships, practiced informally or through organized corporate programs, have proved critical to women's advancement and employee retention. According to a 2019 survey by ISACA, a global organization promoting technology, 56 percent of female respondents believe the lack of women role models in the tech sector is the primary reason for underrepresentation of women—a trend that could be mitigated through successful mentorships. A prior ISACA study on breaking gender barriers in tech found that lack of mentors (48 percent) and lack of female role models (42 percent) were among the top barriers preventing women from getting ahead.

"Studies for over 50 years tell us that mentorship (including the behavioral subset of advocacy and sponsorship) is a crucial factor in career growth," says Susan Colantuono, co-host of "A Career That Soars," a global network of career-oriented women, and author of the book, "Make the Most of Mentoring."

"For women in tech, mentors provide windows into success criteria and give support and encouragement, and male mentors provide legitimacy in a field dominated by men. The right mentors, women and men, can help process the harassment and discrimination women face on a regular basis."

Please read: How these women used their tech experience to fuel their passions

Finding your mentor match

Once you understand the importance of mentorship, figuring out when you need one and how to go about finding the right candidate can be somewhat daunting. The first thing to understand is that you will have many mentors throughout your career, so the type and style of the interaction will vary depending on the need or what skill gaps command attention. Changing roles, trying to correct developmental feedback that you aren't sure how to address, or getting support on how to handle a particularly dicey professional situation are all times when a mentor can have impact.

Once a need is defined, look for someone who exemplifies those traits and has the requisite expertise or relevant experience—the key is not shying away from asking for their help. "People are afraid to reach out to people of status, but I say, don't be afraid—just reach out," says Kennedy Vickers, adding that someone recently contacted her after listening to her speak on an industry panel. "She sent me a link telling me she was an aspiring CIO and she wanted to connect. I wanted to do it because [mentoring] made a difference for me, and I hope others will follow suit."

Rashmi Kumar, CIO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, thinks of mentors as a personal board of directors. She suggests cultivating multiple resources with backgrounds in the different areas you want to cultivate as well as keeping the interactions focused at a directional level, instead of getting bogged down by the minutia of day-to-day operations. "Just like a company board of directors has different backgrounds in risk, finance, or products, so too should your mentors if you really want to grow and round out holistically," Kumar says.

 

Kumar has had myriad mentors over the years, including early in her career, to help her process feedback not as personal criticism but as constructive guidance for improving her work product, and later, to weigh the pros and cons of pivotal career decisions. The most formative mentoring experience was a female mentor and sponsor who convinced her that a CIO path was better suited for her talents than a CTO track.

A less successful mentorship experience came after Kumar was passed over for a role despite working with a mentor on targeted areas where she needed to improve. "While I had mentors, the discussions focused too much about my personal experiences growing up and not enough about growing my career," she says. "I learned a lot from that experience, including that I should have had a sponsor, not a mentor, to help me navigate better."

Maximizing mentorship

Kumar's experience illustrates how important it is to set realistic expectations for what a mentor can and can't do. "Don't expect a lifelong buddy—it might happen, but it's not a given—don't expect therapy, and don't expect sponsorship," says Colantuono. "Mentorship encompasses a whole lot of behaviors, while sponsorship is a narrow set that has to do with advocating for you in the face of opportunity."

Being well prepared is another foundational rule of good mentorship. It's up to the mentee to establish the agenda, set priorities, be clear about goal setting, and keep the conversations focused. Know whether your developmental needs fall in the areas of outcomes, such as business strategy or financial acumen, or trend in the direction of interpersonal or team-building skills. It's OK to ask open-ended questions, but come in with your own analysis—for example, frame the conversation with the specific problems that need solving, the pros and cons for each, and where you're leaning in terms of course of action.

"Give the mentor things to work with that make it easier for them," Kumar says. "That will lead to more valuable interaction vs. casual chit chat."

One of the biggest miscues in mentorship, which is more pronounced among women, is lack of attention to financial and commercial business acumen—a gap Colantuono's research refers to as "the missing 33 percent," a topic she discussed at length in a Ted Talk. According to Colantuono, mentorship for women primarily falls into what she calls the CAKE category, keyed to building confidence; aptitude, attitude, and advice; making connections; and encouragement. What's lacking, she says, is mentorship built on enhancing PIE (performance, image, exposure), which includes understanding the performance of the business and key operational metric—both critical to executive decision-making. What's more, she contends that men are more likely to mentor other men on PIE, oftentimes through informal channels like buddy-to-buddy conversations or through the context of the jobs they recommend.

"It's so in the fiber of what men do for each other," Colantuono says. "The biggest mistake women make is that they don't know about this and they don't ask for it."

The danger? "If you don't understand the performance of the business, you won't be able to present yourself in the image of a business leader because you can't speak the language," she says.

Regardless of the mentor or type of mentorship offered, it's always important to follow through on your commitments, express gratitude, and most importantly, pay it forward. "People want an opportunity to feel vested in helping people," says HPE's Kumar. "It doesn't matter if they're junior, senior, lateral, inside or outside the company. Reach out to them."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.