One of the most consistent pieces of advice you will hear offered for women and men alike is to find a mentor early in your career and leverage him or her for advice, honest feedback and as a role model for how to advance at work.
The problem is, however, the men and women who got to the top are busy running things at the top. It can often be hard to foster a relationship with a mentor in a way that's organic and mutually beneficial. Chicago CIO Brenda Berman alluded to this in her Chicago address to the Women in Comms crowd at the Big Telecom Event last year, noting that finding a mentor doesn't necessarily entail going up to a woman you don't know and asking her to mentor you, much like the baby bird did in his search for his mom in the children's book, "Are You My Mother?." (See Breakfast of Champions: Women in Tech at BTE.)
That said, many women and men recognize the importance of mentors and make time, in both official and unofficial capacities, to help others on their way. Neelam Ghuiliani, an enterprise information management program manager and consultant for Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), recently reached out to Women in Comms to express the importance of mentors and the challenges associated with fostering those relationships.
Ghuiliani has been in the tech industry for more than 25 years and racked up her Masters and MBA to further her career. Her experiences have led her to believe that a solid mentor who has walked in the footsteps ahead is the one factor that could make a big difference to advancing her career, more so than an additional degree.
She shared with WiC more on why mentorships matter and how to make them a priority regardless of where you're at in your career.
Women in Comms: Tell us about your background and education.
Neelam Ghuiliani: I have 15+ years of experience in the data center/cloud management market leading multinational companies, i.e., Cisco, Intel, Ragingwire, NEC, Exodus Communications and Siemens. I have a proven record of driving and growing billion-dollar-plus businesses in a highly competitive market, by leading global cross-functional teams. I possess a unique background in both hardware and software product management combined with an MBA and a track record of working with key internal and external stakeholders to drive results.
My education is a BSEE/MSEE from San Jose State University, an Executive MBA [sponsored by Siemens] from University of California Santa Cruz and PMP/CSM Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificates.
I am passionate about volunteering and giving back so that there is flow of life. I have been involved in Asha for Education at Stanford, Child Relief and You, Habitat for Humanity, IEEE, SWE, Toastmaster, PMI, Maitri and Heartfulness Meditation.
WiC: Why are mentors so important to women in the comms industry?
NG: Mentors are so important for women because the communications industry is predominantly led by males. Women need a mentor who can help them dive deeper into how to get to that next level in the career ladder, and look for champions. Champions can do more for you that you can ever do on your own. Mentors who are female CEOs/executives can give insights on how they build relationships, how they get big, new clients or referrals or promotions. And it's often because they've had a champion who can talk about them better than they can talk about themselves.
Women are so modest; we tend to not really share and talk about how great we are and how talented we are. So oftentimes, this is the champion's role -- our cheerleader -- and for women, especially, this is something all of us really need.
WiC: Do you feel that mentoring needs to be a formal process, or more of an organic thing that arises within companies?
NG: I think it is the combination of both; it doesn't matter how you find a mentor. I believe that we need to reach out to people you admire. Finding a good mentor can be as important to your career as finding a soul mate is to the rest of your life. I wouldn't sit and wait until a mentor finds you [in a formal process]. The best mentors are often women that you establish a relationship with, that you find a connection with. And then it develops -- and it takes on its own natural progression. And some of the best mentors you might never have the conversation about whether or not you're a mentor or the person being mentored. But you know it -- and they play that role for you, and they're happy to do so.
So, it isn't helpful for some women, in that, they really want to know specifically, tactically, "How do I do this?" The best advice that senior executive women have shared with me to pass along is that, you find a connection with these women. You put yourself out there, and get to know them -- and, if they reciprocate with equal interest, then you keep going. And you build the relationship like you would any other relationship.
WiC: How can women in the industry who want to mentor be effective when balancing it against the daily demands of their job?
NG: Juggling multiple balls in the air is a time management/discipline skill that each executive applies in daily life and this question is about heart not mind. Every executive has a personal side to their daily activities and it is the link to their purpose -- where we are and why we are here. The best way I can answer is, that "Light lighting another lamp" so that there is light after them. It's the same reason as taking time to volunteer, teach your child or help a friend in need. It is in our DNA to co-operate, co-habitat and co-passion. This gives an inner shift in perspective, and allows you to think and act bigger, which is sometimes all we need. I believe it is all about the priority. If somewhere in the heart one believes that giving back to society is their purpose, they will find time. This is matter of heart! Secondly, you'll be challenged to stay at the top of your game to provide your charge with up-to-date advice. This will make you even better at what you do!
WiC: How can women who are early in their career set about identifying a mentor or sponsor to help them continue to advance?
NG: One, make a list of who you want to be. And then find a way to make them part of your life. Don't limit yourself to one person. I would encourage women, always, to look up as high as they can. And find those role models -- because, it doesn't matter if you have direct access to them. You can still be inspired.
Two, reach out to people you admire. Finding a good mentor can be as important to your career as finding a soul mate is to the rest of your life. Don't sit waiting until a mentor finds you.
Three, be open to serendipity. It was serendipitous that I met my mentor. I was searching for employment and what came of it was one of the most influential people in my life.
Four, use social media to demonstrate what you're good at, your interests and strengths.
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading