Coach like a pro: Why women in IT need mentors

CIO Canada –

When Paula Bohn first graduated from university with a degree in French and German, she moved across an entire continent to pursue her goal of becoming a language teacher in Europe.

Until recently, as a woman in IT, her aspiration to ascend the corporate IT ladder to a CIO-equivalent position has seemed in many ways equally distant. She's not alone: According to 2008 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 27 per cent of IT managers across different industries were women. Canada is likely to share a similar makeup.

Fortunately for Bohn, a field solution manager in Microsoft Canada's enterprise platform division, a recently launched e-mentoring program for women in IT may help close that gap.

The program, a joint Canadian Advanced Technology Association-Women in Technology (CATA-WIT) and CIO Association of Canada (CIOCAN) venture, pairs women in IT positions with CIOs for a year. The mentoring takes place via e-mail and phone for the most part, although some may meet in person or use videoconferencing if feasible. Mentees must have five years of IT experience or one to four years in a management position. Mentors, who are both male and female, are senior executives, mostly at the VP level, from all industries.

At the moment, the two organizations are running a pilot in Ontario, with plans to roll it out nationally next year.

Sandra Saric, vice-president, mentoring at CATA-WIT, says in research her organization has conducted with Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa, as well as in focus groups across Canada, young women in IT consistently identify access to leadership development and mentoring as the two key support systems they most lack. Response to the call for applications to the program supports those findings, Saric says. Of CATA-WIT's approximately 75 Ontario chapter members, 26 applied immediately.

Although women are often natural communicators and collaborators, they frequently lack the networking skills they need to capitalize on those communication and collaboration skills, says Saric. "This program provides opportunities for women to make that connection and bridge the gap between where they want to go and what they want to do."

The long and winding path

Bohn, like many of her peers also on a career path to the C-suite, has taken a somewhat circuitous route from the outset. Instead of teaching languages as she had originally planned upon graduation, she ended up at Sony Communications. "They were looking at translation services software. They said, 'you're an interpreter for us, you should see this prototype,'" she says. "I got hooked on IT."

After Sony, she worked as a programmer and implementations manager at a number of Toronto-based telecommunications firms. Nine years ago, Microsoft recruited her. She has been in an IT-like role for the past six years, and while she has no plans to move out of the company, she would like to move up -- and she knows it will be a lot easier with a helping hand to guide her.

"Over the years I've developed a lot of business and technology knowledge, and while it's very valuable to do that kind of tactical work, it doesn't really facilitate career development," she says. "I'm looking for a leadership role in IT. The titles may vary but I'm talking about a person who looks across the entire platform of IT solutions, so it would be at the general manager or vice-president level and the equivalent of CIO in a smaller organization."

Bohn says despite women's advancements in the corporate world, women in IT remain a minority -- one that isn't taken seriously enough, for a variety of reasons.

"We don't ask for what we deserve," she says. "We expect one day people will see the great work we're doing and just offer it to us."

Realizing that's likely to happen just as soon as pigs fly, she applied to the e-mentoring program and was soon matched with Susan Doniz, CIO Canada Global Business Services at Procter & Gamble Inc. and a member of CIOCAN's board of directors.

Doniz calls the response to the e-mentoring program "shocking." On the other hand, she's not surprised so many women in IT want to take advantage of the kind of 20/20 hindsight sesasoned CIOs can offer: People with mentors make more money and earn more promotions, she says.

A mentor would have made it easier for her in her own career, she adds.

"I think it took me about 10 years before I even thought about mentorship, which was about 10 years too late," she says. "It wasn't because I didn't think it was a good idea, it was because no one ever knocked on my door and said you need a mentor. On a personal level, you forget to ask for help."

So what do women need in the way of coaching or mentoring that's so unique?

Kim Batson, a U.S.-based CIO coach who partners exclusively with CIOs, CTOs and other senior technology executives to accelerate their careers and job search, said in an e-mail interview that women are still viewed as less technical than their male counterparts, although that's less of a hindrance today as the role of CIO evolves to a more business-oriented position. The real challenge for women, Batson says, is that they are not seen as part of the boys' club -- the one that goes golfing, attends sporting events and networks like mad.

Batson's solution, apart from taking up golfing and acquiring a sudden interest in all things ball-related, is to round out the mentor package with a coach who can help you develop a strong professional presence and cultivate emotional intelligence traits such as self-awareness, self-management and relationship-building skills. She also recommends that upwardly mobile women in IT hire a personal branding strategist to develop and articulate their personal and executive brand so they stand out from the crowd and attract the attention of senior executives.

According to Doniz, what women in IT need from a mentoring relationship probably depends on where they are in their careers. Women in middle management are typically at the age where they have children and may be responsible for elder care as well, so they often struggle with work/life balance, she says.

At any age, however, having a mentor and developing professional networks can make or break your career, observes Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. "Most IT positions are filled through word-of-mouth," she points out. "That's how people tend to find out what's available. Someone who has a voice and some power and influence can be an advocate for you and bring your name forward at the right time."

Stemming

the tide

Although CATA-WIT and CIOCAN have framed the e-mentoring program as a way to encourage upward mobility in IT, such programs can also stem the tide of women who abandon the field entirely.

According to the U.S.-based National Center for Women in Technology, 41 per cent of women leave technology companies after 10 years of experience, compared to only 17 per cent of men; 56 per cent of women leave at the mid-level point. If current trends continue, NCWIT says, by 2016 the information technology industry will be able to fill only half of its available jobs.

For Perrier-Knox, the question is not just why women are leaving IT, but where they're going.

"Are they moving to roles where they can leverage their IT skills, such as becoming a business analyst?" she wonders. "We want to find out because IT is becoming less about technology and more about business so there may be some interesting modified roles (that women are moving to) that are sitting in other departments that use IT."

And although the e-mentoring program is designed to develop future IT leaders, there are many benefits to the mentor and to both parties' organizations, says Perrier-Knox.

Mentoring is an inexpensive way to deliver soft skills training, she says. And with the impending wave of baby boomer retirement, combined with the general tendency of the younger generation to constantly move on to the next exciting opportunity, mentoring, job shadowing and coaching are all excellent ways to transfer knowledge down the chain before it walks out the door.

It's valuable to give senior staff the opportunity to practise using their coaching and mentoring skills, and it gives junior employees the chance to interact with staff that can share information with them, she says. "It's a good experience for everyone and it creates bonds that make people more likely to stay with an organization."

Doniz points out that mentoring helps CIOs because they will hear about issues their own employees might be too afraid to broach with them.

Dave Codack, CIO and vice-president, technology and employee services at the TD Bank Financial Group and also a CIOCAN board member, agrees. Codack, who is paired with an assistant vice-president in another financial institution, says establishing connections with ambitious young IT professionals in other organizations can broaden access to a narrow talent pool.

Mentoring also fulfils TD's mandate of participating in community-based projects, although that's not his motivation.

For him, the opportunity to watch someone grow can be immensely rewarding -- and a much-needed break from everyday pressures.

"I've got 12 to 13 meetings a day on average. I'm on four boards. I have two young kids and I'm taking my flying licence. I need to have an outlet," he says.

Codack, who also participates in mentoring programs with a number of local educational institutes, adds that it's enormously satisfying when someone takes your advice and grows professionally. "I actually get a lot of excitement and enjoyment working with someone with a lot of spirit and passion; that's the payback."

And although it never occurred to him at the time, having a mentor would have made navigating his own career a little easier, he says.

"I never thought I needed a mentor, to be honest," Codack says. "I ended up learning through the school of hard knocks, and frankly, I would have been better off if I had had someone to go to at various stages of my career."

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