Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Making the Most of Mentoring

I love having the flexibility at work to take an hour or two out of my day and either give back or enhance my skills.  I try to balance between taking time out to talk to a high school class or after school club about engineering and to work on building my own skills.  Today I took out an hour to listen to a webinar about making the most out of mentoring. (If you find my analysis valuable, consider signing up with Jo Miller to listen to some of the other webinars she has going this year)

I appreciated that the webinar brought out three baselines needed to get the most out of mentoring: luck, performance, and recognizing opportunities.

  • Luck– I believe that about 50% of life is just being in the right place at the right time.  I think you have to go into a mentoring relationship knowing that they will help with your skills and plans, but that part of getting that next opportunity is also dependent on luck and timing.  It takes some patience.
  • Performance– It’s alot easier to find, engage, and keep mentors when you are a high performer and have the right attitude and effort in your current job.
  • Recognizing Opportunities– I find most people are change adverse.  When you walk into a mentoring relationship, you have to accept they are going to ask you to change.  You need to be open to listening and trying new skills, new jobs, and hearing about another perspective.  I’ve found in my experience that being open to trying new things has helped me immensely.  (my current job came from an opportunity I wasn’t sure I wanted…I took advice from a mentor and flew to Austin for a speaking engagement that has reaped me huge benefits- including getting paid to speak in Boston!…it’s amazing what happens when you just go for it)

When you do go out to get mentors, make sure you are building a “board of directors of mentors”.  I agree that these are the right types of mentors to have.  I think I would expand the list some to state that sometimes you need mentors that are not in your company.  I think that an advisor or two who can talk to you about other opportunities in the industry and geographical area is very valuable- especially in this time of job instability.

  • Coaches– These are the mentors, usually somewhat informally, who you work with on a regular basis to build your skills.  I have a few coaches.  One is a peer of mine who I talk with at least once a week and discuss how to best approach situations, handle communications, and when to escalate issues.  Another coach I’m using to build my technical skills and yet another I’m using to work on my communications with senior management.
  • Appraisers- These are the mentors who can talk to your performance versus potential and help gauge your value.  I have found that my manager doesn’t always see everything that I do.  So I go out and poll certain people I work with and ask them to give me some assessments on what I’m good at and where they see I have potential that I could further develop.  I’ve also gone to mentors and asked if they thought I might have the skills to do a certain job, or take on a particular project.
  • Advisors- These are the mentors who can help assess your plans and help highlight routes to take, usually they are more senior leaders than you and have visibility and perspective. This is the most difficult category for mentors for me.  I think it’s because I am never quite sure where I want to go next and feel awkward having more open ended conversations with senior leaders.  That said, I have certainly had some of these advisors at one point or another and they have been very helpful in looking outside my narrow view of the possible opportunities at the company.  My advisors have also helped show me different routes to take.
  • Referral Agents- These are mentors who can help you make connections to get information and visibility.  I love to meet new people and am a natural connector.  I have found that most of jobs and even big success at work have come from asking others outside of my direct realm for information or a contact for more information.  My advice is to find people who are natural connectors, especially those in an area you want to grow, and ask for their mentorship- even if it is just for a short while.

Once you identify one of the potential mentors above, set up a 20min informational meeting with them and bring 3-4 concise questions.  I’ve sometimes had to wait awhile to get the meeting (I think 2 months is my longest so far), but no one has turned me down yet.

Formal mentoring programs are good ones to meet potential mentors and get your foot in the door for the informational interview- but the best mentoring relationships come when there is chemistry.  If you meet with a mentor and don’t feel any chemistry, it’s better to find someone else than keep pushing on that one.

When do should you become a mentor?  NOW!!   I do believe that people wait to long to be a mentor.  I was mentoring people without admitting to myself I was a mentor because I thought I didn’t have enough experience.  Once you get through engineering school, you can mentor students still in school.  Once you get through your first year at a job, you can help others through their first year.  I have some great coaching relationships with my peers that have blossomed into very symbiotic mentoring.

Want a way to get started?  At a minimum consider signing up to be a mentor on mentornet! I was a mentee in college and had a great email mentor.  I’ve since mentored quite a few people.  It’s fun and you’ll be amazed at what you learn about yourself and how much advice you really have to give.

Happy Mentoring and Mentor Seeking 🙂

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WWE- Weekend Woman Engineer- Grace Hopper

I thought I’d start a new blog series about inspiring women in engineering.  Since I have a little more time on the weekends to do research, I’ll post these on the weekend.

On the very top of my list of – who would you like to eat dinner with, dead or alive, is Grace Hopper.  I think she was one of the coolest women of all time.  Why? Read on…

A few things we can thank Grace Hopper for…

  • Not having to program in a cryptic machine language- but actually being able to write in understandable English.  Grace developed the first computer compiler
  • Those early years when people learned to program in COBOL. Grace conceptualized and led the development of COBOL, one of the 1st computer languages
  • Every time someone says “debug” or “I’ve found a bug”, they can thank Grace.  She coined the term after finding a two inch moth in the Harvard Mark 1 experimental computer in 1945.
  • The ease at which most of us can pick up new computer programming languages due to their similarities.  Grace pioneered the implementation of standards for testing computer programming languages and systems.
  • The saying “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”- It’s one of her famous quotes.

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and a rear admiral in the United States Navy. (She was one of the first women to be promoted to rear admiral in 1985).  She was born in 1906 and went to Vassar to receive a degree in mathematics and physics, then Yale for a masters and PhD in mathematics.

At age 34 she joined the Navy (inspired to serve her country with the outbreak of WWII) and became a programmer for the Harvard Mark 1, the  world’s first large-scale automatically sequenced digital computer. The computer was used to calculate aiming angles for Naval guns in varying weather conditions. Because the numbers were so pertinent, Hopper and her assistants were often required to run and monitor the system twenty-four hours a day.

Her years of service to the country led to a US Navy Destroyer, the USS Hopper, being named after her.

Grace won many awards, but she also has a great legacy that lives on today through scholarships in her name, and the Grace Hopper conference. I think it is one of the best technical conference for women, especially those in computer science and computer engineering.  Her legacy and impact continues to live on.

Looking for New Challenges Along All Coordinates

I’ve been working on a presentation for the region SWE conference on Career Management in Difficult Economic Circumstances.  One of the topic areas is around what to do when you feel bored and stuck in your job.  With the lack of promotions in the corporate world lately, and people afraid to get new jobs themselves or even retire, there are not nearly the number of “higher” positions available.

Sometimes, though you look up at your manager and your manager’s manager and think, I don’t want that job.  Either way, the question is, what do you do?

Well, you look to the side and you even look down.  I’ve made a few lateral transitions.  One of my transitions was continuing to do project management, just on a different product in a whole new business group.  I was able to use my same set of project management skills, but expand on a whole new set of technical skills.  I also got to work with new people in a new environment.  It kept me challenged and happy.

I have not personally moved down the hierarchy to find a new challenge, but I know a few people that have.  They said initially accepting the fact that they were going to be “a low run in the ladder” again was tough.  After a year, and a steep learning curve, they were each back at or above the level they were when they moved down.  Not too bad.

When you reach that stuck spot, I think there are 5 options for you:

  1. Move up (if available…though I’ve found this one can be tough as the number of openings is always smaller than where you are)
  2. Move laterally (best if you can use some skills you’ve mastered and build new ones)
  3. Move down (best for moving to entirely new area,and typically ends up with you moving up again after a year or so)
  4. Stay where you are (and convince your manager to give you some different things to work on- requires a manager who will help you out)
  5. Move out (sometimes the only option to stay happy really is to leave the company)

The key to any of the moves above is make sure you know what will make you happy and make the company money.  You need to figure out the intersection of your passions, your skills, and the business need.  When you can do that, you’ve got a nice template for the job to go after.

For me, that intersection has been project management.  I didn’t reach the conclusion on my own- I needed the help and advice of some mentors to help me see the intersection.  It has served me well for the past few years.  As my skills grow and the business need changes, I’ll need to re-asses that intersection and see if it has changed.  I think I’m about a year away from needing another change.  Better start thinking about it…

Retaining Your Individuality in the Corporate Hairball

I am traveling to New York today and doing some reading catch up on the plane.  I am part way through a great book called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball- A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace”, by Gordon MacKenzie.  It is fantastic!  (and a fun, fast read)

The books is really tips and insight into keeping your creativity and individuality and not getting sucked into the bureacratic norm that is most companies.  It focuses on how you can be happy and productive and creative by orbiting around the bureaucratic hairball, instead of being stagnant stuck in the middle of it.

I highly suggest it to anyone who works in a big company!  (warning, it took me awhile to get it.  I ordered it off of Amazon in December and got it about 6 weeks later)

Here is a quote out of the book, that is my inspiration for this Monday Morning.

When you come into an organization, you bring with you an arcane potency, which stems, in part, from your uniqueness.  That, in turn, is rooted in a complex mosaic of personal history that is original, unfathomable, inimitable.  There has never been anyone quite like you, and there never will be.  Consequently, you can contribute something to an endeavor nobody else can.  There is power in your uniqueness- an inexplicable, unmeasurable power…

Bug if you are hypnotized by an organizations culture, you become separated from your personal magic and cannot tap it to help achieve the goals of the organization.  In losing connection with your one-of-a-kind magic, you are reduced to nothing more than part of the headcount.  Deep inside the Hairball.

So whenever you feel your head being pushed down onto an organization’s chalk line, remember the challenege is to move out of the way, to choose not to be mesmerized by the culture of your company.  Instead, find the goals of the organization that touch your heard and release your passion to follow those goals.

It is a delicate balance, resisting the hypnotic spell of an organization’s culture and, at the same time, remaining committed from the heart to the personally relevant goals for the organization.  But if you can achieve that balance and maintain it, you will be out of the Hairball and into the Orbit, the only place where you can tap your one-of-a-kind magic, your genius, your limitless creativity.