TechUP industry mentors

In any walk of life, in any career in any sector, mentors can play a huge role in helping people navigate life inside and outside the workplace. I cannot state enough how valuable mentors have been to me during my career in technology.

They have helped me frame challenging discussions about salary and progression, manage biases and expectations, improve self-promotion and much more. They have also played a crucial role in improving my confidence beyond the workplace.

Yet not every woman in tech has the chance to benefit from having a mentor. Although finding a mentor can have as much to do with serendipity as anything else, there are steps that women can take to find a mentor. Similarly, for more senior women in tech, there is much they can do to act as a mentor to others.

Why mentors?

Most people in a job will have a line manager. Others might also have a designated mentor to offer advice and guidance in a more unofficial capacity. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but having a mentor appointed to you from within the organisation you work in can make it harder to communicate openly.

In one of my first roles – not actually in tech – it was a sales-orientated and male-dominated company with a particular way of behaving. Receiving feedback, proper communication or any expression was taken as a weakness or that someone was overly emotional. Despite this, I managed to do well in the organisation, but it was clear there was no one there to guide me, officially or otherwise.

Even in my current role at Wazoku, my boss is great and supportive but different to me. I relish the opportunity to speak to someone outside the organisation. People aren’t lone wolves, and there is much to be said for community and support systems, having people to talk with and challenge you.

I met my first mentor in an exercise class. I was having a bad time in a role and didn’t know how to navigate that. She was a CEO, and I felt able to open up to her about it in a way that I didn’t with my boss at the time. She guided me and advised me on how to communicate so I come across well. This included how to initiate and have that more difficult conversation.

What makes a good mentor?

Good communication is essential, especially in how to do this without letting emotions overrule you. Being emotional is not to be discouraged, but equally when you are having a more challenging discussion, it’s good to be able to do so without being overly geared by your emotions.

Mentors themselves, therefore, need to be good communicators. They must be able to challenge you and say things you might not like, but for that to be taken in the right way. That’s why I think mentors generally work better outside the organisation. They have a very different perspective from your colleagues, and it’s a safe space with them – you can say things about the workplace that you might not feel comfortable doing with a boss or internal mentor.

Good listening is also an essential part of any mentor’s toolkit. The ability to actively listen is hugely underrated, and many ‘good listeners’ I have encountered often seem to speak more than listen. This is a barrier to building the trust and empathy that is so important.

Finally, I’d suggest that experience is highly prized. Most of my mentors have tended to be slightly older than me. And when I act as a mentor myself, it has tended to be with people who are somewhat younger. Speaking to someone who has already faced the challenges that you are facing is reassuring. These women had it harder than we do and have paved the way for what women can do today.

Finding your mentor

Of course, some workplace mentors can be helpful, but a successful mentor needs to have a genuine connection with whoever they are mentoring. Otherwise, it’s a non-starter. And a connection isn’t something that can be forced, so I think there is a role for groups connecting women, such as The Mentoring Foundation.

There are other groups for women to have mentors across the UK, some based on geography and others around a sector. I’m confident there would be a space for a group to connect junior women in tech with mentors. It’s all about passing it on and building a community to help change the world. I think most more established women in tech would help if they could.

There’s also a role for a paid-for service, such as a business coach or therapist. I have used these, and they are things to which an employer could contribute. In the absence of a mentor, paying someone to coach you – to be better, to negotiate your salary and all the things that don’t actually get taught – is money well spent.

I wouldn’t have progressed in my career how I have without having several mentors to lean on along the way. They can be invaluable, and I would encourage any woman to try and find one and any woman that has used a mentor to do all they can to mentor others.

About the author

Sarah CountsSarah Counts is Chief Operating Officer at Wazoku, the innovation scale-up that works with organisations such as NASA, Shell and AstraZeneca to crowdsource and manage ideas and innovation. Sarah has spent most of her career working for technology companies in the UK and the US.