How mentoring can help nurture future female tech leaders

I was struck by a forbes article that I recently came across, that questioned why the IT industry is growing, and yet invisible barriers persist that prevent more women from entering the industry, and that also hinder their progress when they are in a tech industry role. I’ve mentioned before that I feel really strongly about this, having observed the challenges my wife encountered in developing her own career in IT, especially early on, when she didn’t have the same opportunities or sponsorship that I had. 

 We’re working hard at Acronis to achieve more gender diversity. Following the launch last year of our #CyberWomen initiative, to identify, educate, inspire, and coach the next generation of female leaders, I’m really proud to have taken part in the first meeting with my mentee, as part of our #WomenInTech mentorship program, which is a key element in our drive to accelerate our female employees’ professional development.   

At the beginning of the year we identified 50 high-potential women, selected through our performance review process, to be mentored by 40 of our Senior Leaders, Executives, and Board Members or Advisors. A lot of thought has gone into the pairing of our junior to mid level mentees with senior leaders who are outside their reporting structure, to help encourage networking and cross-functional knowledge transfer. 

This is a really fantastic opportunity for the mentees to gain guidance and advice from industry experts such as Paul Maritz, our Chairman, and former CEO of VMware; René Bonvanie, Acronis Board Member and former CMO of Palo Alto Networks; and Philipp Rösler, former Vice-Chancellor of Germany, who is one of our Advisors, alongside many other, and I’m hugely grateful to our senior team for giving their time to the project.  

We mentors will be meeting our mentee for around 60 minutes each month, until the end of the year, to help them develop the soft skills they need to develop their careers. This might mean helping them with their next career step and identifying the skills they need for this, or discussing how to achieve more in their current role, or how to navigate situations from a political point of view, which is always useful in a large organization, or teaching them how to network better. For example, one of our mentees wants to grow her exec presence and confidence; even though she already manages 80 people, this is an area she feels could hold her back.

Mentorship certainly helped my own personal career development; I actually had three mentors to help me with very specific experience and goals: to improve my leadership skills, stay healthy and for board related topics.  

It’s easy to assume that if you’ve been mentored, you’ll instinctively know how to be a mentor, but I’ve learnt there’s a lot more to it. All our mentors and mentees have received training about the program, plus a guide, which have been really useful in explaining how the sessions should work, and how to approach them. 

Having a joint understanding for both mentors and mentees on what to expect from the sessions, is absolutely critical, and an easy mistake to make, is to fall into setting goals for the mentee that should be agreed with a line manager. Another common mistake is for mentees to use the meetings to raise certain challenges within the organisation (because that is what they believe the session is for) when really the mentor is there help them grow, not necessarily to solve current company issues. 

I believe that both mentees and mentors will see a lot of benefits here – it’s not only about professional development and building future leaders, but also about strengthening our culture of trust, open discussions and building connections across the organization. 

There are clear benefits for the mentee in learning from the knowledge and experience of their mentors, but I’m going to gain from the experience too. I truly believe in leading by example, helping our high-potential colleagues to grow. Mentorship will also help me to stay close to our people. As CEO you rely on multiple information channels to make the right decisions, and to better understand and feel the mood in the broader organisation. This is why I try to meet as many colleagues as possible on a regular basis, no matter what position they hold. 

One thing we’ve observed from the mentorship so far, (which actually applies to both men and women), is that junior people need more business acumen, as they very often focus exclusively on improving their subject matter expertise, but are less focused on cross-functional knowledge. Unless they are working in finance, financial acumen is often missing, and this is going to affect their future careers, as for C-level executives, financial decision making is key. This lack of financial knowledge also means junior people very often don’t follow the logic of why certain decisions were made. As business leaders I think we therefore need to work more on communicating the ‘why’ behind business decisions.

 We’ve had a really positive response to the scheme from our female employees, and it’s clear that there is a real hunger for mentoring.  When we announced the program, Aliona Geckler, our Chief of Staff, said her email was inundated with supportive messages from women keen to participate. I’ve got high hopes for the scheme, and at the end of this year I’ll be sharing our findings in terms of the common career challenges women are facing, and I think I’ll have learnt a lot about myself, and about Acronis, along the way. 

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