One of the popular pieces of advice for women in tech looking to advance their careers is to find a mentor. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, talks about her mentors who encouraged her, challenged her, and advocated for her throughout her career. ARA Mentors, founded by IT recruitment specialist Megan McCann in 2013, has the admirable goal of connecting women in technology to one another through events and one-on-one mentoring sessions. Mentoring is one way to build and maintain community, as well as for women in tech leadership to receive meaningful advice as they advance their careers. However, finding the right fit in a mentor - someone who has the right time, experience, and willingness can be a challenge, even with great programs like ARA in the mix.
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To overcome obstacles for women in tech, women can augment their professional lives and mentoring relationships with one of the most powerful tools for clarifying ambitions and reaching goals: executive coaching. Normally, the context of coaching is organizational; an organization hires a coach for either and at-risk or high-potential employee for development. However, executive coaching may be sought by an individual to increase her leadership skills and gain valuable tools to reach her professional ambitions, and research is starting to show that coaching is highly effective.
For more details about executive coaching and its potential impact on women in tech, I interviewed Kelly Ross, who runs a niche coaching and consulting firm, Ross Associates, that focuses on leadership development and talent management. In addition to her professional work, Ross is a certified Hudson Institute Coach, holds an International Coach Federation Professional Certified Coach credential, and teaches at Northwestern University in their graduate coaching program.
Corpolongo: Why would a woman in tech want to hire an executive coach?
Ross: Hire a coach if you are in a new, bigger role and trying to figure out how you want to show up as a leader; if you are leading a team or organization going through change, especially if you personally find the change a challenge but have to lead others through that same change; if you have received feedback about something that could be professionally limiting and need help sorting out how to take action and change your behavior. Those leaders who are not executives yet, and know they need to build presence and own their stories to make the leap to senior leadership, will find a coach helpful.
Corpolongo: Why does executive coaching work? What is your coaching philosophy?
Ross: Coaching is about the client and the coach partnering to help the client make the change they desire. The client brings the agenda, [and] the coach manages the process through great questions. That sounds very simple but in my experience great coaching is magical, it helps the client discover answers, make a change that sticks, and understand what has been getting in their way. The client has to want to invest time, energy and money into coaching, it is not going to have an impact if the client isn’t clear about what they want to get from the coaching or is not willing to do the work. Many times the breakthrough happens between sessions when something the client and coach discussed “clicks” for the client.
I customize coaching for each client – some need more process than others. I’ll ask you how you want to receive feedback - “tough love” or more gently. Many leaders are lonely and appreciate coaching for the thought partnership and the safe space to not have to know every answer immediately. Many of us are our own biggest obstacle and coaching can help you articulate your "lines in the sand" and sticking to the boundaries you establish.
Coaching is not therapy, which often looks back into the past; coaching is present and future focused. Coaching focuses on understanding patterns and taking action while therapy is about an analysis of the past. Coaching is solution focused.
Corpolongo: What do you think are any special considerations for women in technology in their leadership development?
Ross: As women, working in technology or elsewhere, we are often hard on ourselves. We don’t always invest in ourselves as we might for others. Coaching is personal, it is focused on you being the best version of yourself, and it is one of the best investments in yourself I know of. My own coach is really important to my success as she challenges me, and she supports me.
For example, one of my clients, a sales leader at a leading technology organization, wanted to be promoted to senior leadership and needed to increase her presence and own her story. We worked together for a year, meeting every two to three weeks, to articulate her values, build and tell her story, and increase her presence and influence.
Alternately, one of my clients is a leader in a tech organization working in product marketing. She used coaching to support her leaving her organization and launching her own business. Initially, we worked together every other week for six months as she envisioned the business she would launch, the skills she had or needed to build, and her plan for making the change from employee to business owner. We are in the midst of our second engagement focusing on the legacy and leadership she wants to leave in her current organization and the ideal life she will create when she launches her business.
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