Heather Dahl directs global analyst relations at a major communications technology firm Her new illustrated book, the Cynja, introduces kids to the world of technology and cybersecurity — you’ll hear more about this from me soon. She’s also Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Press Foundation. During a recent chat, she told me that women in tech fall roughly into three categories, based on where they are in their careers: beginning, middle, or more experienced. Dahl talks about the mentoring younger workers, rather than falling into the competitive trap.
I suppose you could say that I’m a woman of a certain generation, a phrase that seems old fashioned to apply to oneself, when I don’t feel that old. And yet, I belong to that generation–Gen X, the one bitten by reality in the 1990s and supposedly consigned to careers of non-achievement–that went on to embrace the Internet revolution, and now finds a younger generation–the Millennials–looking to us as leaders in our organizations and fields.
Unlike the military, where career progress is measured by rank, and rank explicitly denotes increasing leadership, career progress in the civilian world drifts, sometimes moving in leaps and bounds before drifting again. And because you can see yourself for so long as being at the start of your own story, you can often miss that you’re actually halfway along your own path, and others, just beginning theirs, are looking to you for direction.
This is why mentoring has to be something we must consciously build into how we manage and how we lead. And I’m not talking about the occasional coffee with an entry-level employee. What I’m describing is a state of mindfulness: how, in any given situation, am I going to help this person become a better employee? How can I turn everyday situations into opportunities for them to advance their goals and careers? What I know from personal experience is one mentor can change the course of your life forever. And multiple mentors over the course of one’s career can help you achieve dreams you never thought were possible. This is why innovative mentoring software has been developed, allowing multiple people to mentor on a person from behind a screen which could make the mentoring process more productive.
Often, mentoring isn’t very difficult. I’m still surprised at how effective it is just to talk and listen to those who work with you. To you, as an experienced manager, your experience is a given. You’re a walking compendium of case studies, each the record of challenges, insights, successes, and failures. But this experience needs to be imparted, in a constructive way, to those who are at the beginning of their career: “tell me how you are thinking about this problem,” “here’s why path x led to success and path y led to failure.” And once the task or project is done, as in any good sports review, you talk it over post game. What did we learn from this? You also take responsibility if you, yourself, don’t get something right. You’re not a leader if you don’t show that you can learn, too. Walk the talk and others will follow you. I’ve always said my career legacy is based on the success of all those who worked for me.
As Gen Xers like me achieve leadership roles, we find ourselves in a pivotal place. While we still had to experience some of the residual challenges of our mother’s generation, we’re also in a situation where we can influence and shape the work environment in ways they couldn’t. We can build on their achievements to create an even more inclusive culture of achievement.
That’s why I make it a priority to coach and mentor everyone on my team regardless of gender. We all have dreams and goals and we all need different kinds of encouragement and opportunities to engage our strengths. But, most of all, our mentors need to see the possibility of greatness in each of us, despite the boxes we’re forced to check. Gen X women are in a position to be exceptional leaders, simply because there are so few of us, especially in traditionally male dominated fields. This might seem like additional pressure; but it’s not enough for us to succeed individually, we need to succeed collectively.
It’s astonishing to look back at where women stood in the workplace fifty years ago, which was largely outside it–just as, fifty years from now, a generation of women leaders will look back at what we did today. As Gen X women, we are part of one of the most inspiring movements in history, and we have it within our power to build upon the successes of earlier generations to create the workplace we dreamed about for all of those who follow us. This is particularly true for those of us in technology: as we innovate in cyberspace, as we free our imaginations from convention, so we can apply the same thought processes to innovating in the workplace too. And for those I mentor today, the greatest gift to me would be a commitment to do the same for the generation they will eventually lead.