The Executive Woman's Guide to Mentoring

Successful women who've served in both roles explain what makes a mentoring relationship work, how to find the right person and knowing when to part.

By Esther Schindler
Mon, February 25, 2008

CIO — Every stage in your career progress requires new skills. Sometimes, the knowledge you need to acquire is technical minutiae that can best be learned with a more experienced practitioner at your elbow. At other times, you need advice about developing business skills, or help deciding which new position to accept. Such advice can be acquired haphazardly, or it can come from a mentoring relationship.

However, finding a suitable mentor or mentee and making the relationship work isn't always easy, particularly for women who are shy about asking for assistance. Executive women in IT who have learned from mentors or who have provided such guidance themselves urge others to get involved, no matter where they are on their career path. In this article, successful women share what makes a mentoring relationship work, how to find the right person and how to know when to part.

The Benefits of Mentoring Go Both Ways

Mentoring is worth the energy expended, both for an executive who offers guidance and for the person who listens. Everyone interviewed for this article who had mentoring relationships (as mentor, mentee or both), speaks warmly of the experience and cites personal and professional abilities gained.

For the mentee, the real value of mentoring comes from the opportunity to gain confidence as well as skills. "It's a relationship with someone who allows you to voice your vulnerabilities, coach you on strategies to overcome them and help you see possibilities you might have missed otherwise," says Diane Wallace, CIO of the Connecticut Department of Information Technology.

The career benefits can be significant for the mentor, too. Mandeep Maini, vice president of healthcare systems marketing and web systems delivery at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, says executives should "Mentor to learn, rather than to teach." Mentoring makes you reflect on your own style, prejudices and shortcomings, she says, and encourages soul searching.

Mentoring has also made Maini a more compassionate and inclusive leader. A mentee from another department was nervous about speaking up in meetings—a difficulty that Maini personally never had. Coaching her mentee through her fears caused Maini to recognize that someone in her own department who doesn't speak up may be holding back out of shyness, rather than out of a lack of things to say. So Maini is now more inclined to solicit the meeting participant's opinion, where she wouldn't have done so previously.

What's more, mentors say they derive a sense of satisfaction from helping the next generation gain the skills they need. Connecticut's Wallace counts all the successful managers and leaders she's mentored who went on to bigger and better assignments as one of her greatest achievements. "I'm still in touch with employees who I haven't worked with in years, but who still choose to call me a friend because I helped mentor them at some point," she says.

The benefits are evident no matter where you stand on the job ladder—and it's particularly valuable for executives, says Maini, since it's lonely at the top. Executives rarely want to express uncertainty since it makes others think they can't do the job. Yet, Maini points out, we all have fears and insecurities and need to talk with someone.

Linda Brigance, vice president and CIO of FedEx's Asia Pacific Division, appreciates someone who can provide guidance. "I had a mentor even as I moved into my role as CIO in Asia, which provided me with the comfort and confidence that I could talk with someone I trusted as I was establishing myself in this role."

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