Fostering Organic Mentorships: 4 Women in Tech Share the Ins and Outs

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Reading about mentorship or attending webinars entitled “how to find a mentor” might lead you to believe there’s a template for building meaningful mentor-mentee relationships.

It starts with a pairing process—participants in a formalized program may fill out a Myers-Briggs assessment or go through a “speed dating”-esque exercise. Perhaps there are weekly or monthly video calls or coffee dates involved.

The only problem? These structured pairings don’t always work—and they can be awkward.

“There’s a misconception that mentorship needs to be formal and you need to meet every week. What’s more important is that you have a connection.”

—Amanda Tribe, business applications manager, Coal Services

“There’s a misconception that mentorship needs to be formal and you need to meet every week. What’s more important is that you have a connection,” says Amanda Tribe, business applications manager at Coal Services, an Australia-based company that provides mining health and safety services.

Finding a mentor organically is more nuanced than filling out a form or exchanging emails. We spoke to four women about their real-world experiences with mentorship, some of the common myths, and how they foster opportunities for their own employees.

1. Mentors Come in Many Forms

Mentorship is undeniably important for women in technology. “Sixty-seven percent of women rate mentors as highly important for advancing their careers. Yet, 63 percent report that they’ve never had a mentor,” says Jen Felch, chief digital officer at Dell Technologies. “This disparity needs to be addressed to empower women to see their full potential.”

For Tribe, a mentor relationship with her manager, Gillian Kidson, Coal Services’ head of IT, has helped her career progress. “It’s the first time I’ve had a female manager in 20-something years of working in tech,” she says. “It’s opened up the ability to think that anything is possible and to come up with those bigger solutions, which has really benefited our business.”

Women often seek out other female figures in their field for advice and career guidance—but both Tribe and Kidson note it’s important to keep an open mind about what a mentor might look like.

“They [mentors] can be somebody you work alongside who inspires you.”

—Gillian Kidson, head of IT, Coal Services

“Don’t think your mentor has to be female,” says Kidson. “They don’t have to be at the top of the leadership tree, either. They can be somebody you work alongside who inspires you.” Sometimes, she adds, potential mentors are the most unassuming people in the room—they may not stand out as a shining star, but the way they work resonates with you.

In many cases, the mentor-mentee relationship does involve a tenured professional and someone younger or relatively green. These relationships, says Felch, can provide valuable insights and perspective. “The conversations help bridge not only generational gaps in how we think about work, but they also help spark ideas that improve collaboration across teams with broad age demographics,” she says.

But Karen McElhatton, CIO of McLaren Group, adds that mentors aren’t always “old and wise.”

“One of my current mentors is half my age and he is brilliant,” she says. “I can bounce ideas off him and he will provide a great challenge to me.”

2. Seek Out a Network

Sometimes, it takes a village. Mentorship is often more about a network than it is about one-on-one relationships.

“I think mentorship is really more of a network of people that you develop—key individuals that you form relationships with, either because you respect them or because you’ve learned something from them,” says McElhatton. “Then, you continue to go back and seek their advice or input, and before you know it, you’ve got a mentor.”

“I’ve always thought of mentorship as more of a promoter network.”

—Karen McElhatton, CIO, McLaren Group

A mentor can go by many names, she adds. “I’ve never called it that; I’ve always thought of mentorship as more of a promoter network,” she says. “There’s a group of people that I rely on heavily to help develop my ideas, maybe challenge my ideas, and sometimes just to tell me to pull my head in.”

This network functions as both a confidence-boosting cheerleading squad and a sounding board—which is particularly important for women, many of whom feel they need to work harder than their male colleagues for input and opinions to be taken seriously. As Felch puts it, “A mentor is an advocate who not only makes room for women at the table, but hands them a microphone to make their voice heard.”

“A mentor is an advocate who not only makes room for women at the table, but hands them a microphone to make their voice heard.”

—Jen Felch, chief digital officer, Dell Technologies

As for building a mentorship network, Felch suggests turning to both peers and employees who have been at the organization a long time. “Those you work with every day might have insight to a blind spot or a towering strength [of yours],” she says. “There isn’t anything specific needed to gather feedback. Your co-workers—the people who probably know you best—can deliver it to you in real time.”

3. A Mentor Is Meant to Support and Push

McElhatton points out that mentorship relationships aren’t always easy. They’re meant to help you become the best version of your professional self—which sometimes involves a long, hard look in the mirror.

“One of my first mentors never ever answered a question. He used to frustrate me beyond measure,” she says. “I would ask him what he thought of something, and he would always throw it back as a challenge. I think that enabled me to build confidence and not second-guess myself.”

McElhatton has adopted this approach in her own role as a mentor. She recalls when a young employee was struggling with a possible change in her career path and was considering another opportunity.

“As a leader, you desperately want to retain talent. But equally as a mentor, I had to be neutral enough and ask her the right questions to help her draw her own conclusions,” she says. “Ultimately, she stayed and went on to lead some really big programs for the company. But it was her choice, her decision—all I did was ask the questions.”

4. Formalized Programs Should Be About People Over Process

In McElhatton’s career, she’s experienced both fully structured and “looser” mentoring programs. And while organic mentorship is often more fruitful, there may be a place for formal relationships, too—as long as they prioritize the human element.

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“When the process overtakes the person, it becomes a process-for-process setup—that’s when it’s least effective,” says McElhatton.

Kidson notes that one of the drawbacks of formalized relationships that include set meeting times is that, as a mentee, you don’t necessarily know when you’ll need advice. “Being mentored, you can’t pick your moments when you really need to reach out to someone or have a conversation,” she says.

Mentors, too, aren’t psychics—they don’t always know when their protege might need help. “Having a stringent once a month or once a week catch-up, you might miss the mark, you might miss a poignant moment in someone’s career when they need to connect with you so you can listen and they can just talk,” she says.

5. A Mentor Won’t Magically Materialize—You Have to Look

Kidson says one of the most critical elements of successful mentorship is confidence—and a willingness to put yourself out there.

“You’ve got to be a little bit brave about finding your mentor. You don’t know where your next one is going to come from. I’ve sat next to people at events before and walked away thinking, Wow, how inspirational—I’d love to spend more time with that person,” she says. “You need to have the courage to say, ‘Hey, I aspire to walk down your path.'”

Her advice is rooted in personal experience. “I actually picked my first mentor,” she says. “He was about to [fire me]. I found the courage to walk up to him and tell him he was making the biggest mistake of his life—which resulted in him keeping me on and taking me under his wing.”

Senior leaders have a responsibility to keep an eye out for mentorship opportunities for their underlings, too—and to nudge them along.

“Coming back to that concept of having a range of people who support you. I think part of my role as a mentor is to make those introductions—to almost do the matchmaking, and I don’t mean it in a contrived way,” says McElhatton. “When you as a senior leader see somebody who can help another employee, your job is to join those two people together.”

For those considering becoming a mentor, McElhatton says there’s no single set of skills you can practice or hone.

“The biggest myth is you need to be trained, you need to be qualified, you need to be an expert. You don’t need any of that. What you need is a sincere and deep interest in people and their development,” she says. “If you’re interested in people, interested in their story and helping them be better, you can be a great mentor.”