2014 Women Of The Channel: The Value Of A Good Mentor?

As female executives expand their sphere of influence throughout the channel, many are finding that the connections they make with their peers are helping to drive their success. And who better to speak to the need for these connections than this year's Women of the Channel executives? Out of the 340 female executives on our Women of the Channel list this year, 211 said their company has some sort of mentoring program or hosts events specifically geared toward women.

Mentoring programs can be broken down into two categories: formal and informal. Formal mentoring programs are structured, with functions such as organized matching of mentors and those being mentored, seminars, training sessions, events and more. Informal mentoring, on the other hand, is much simpler as relationships are formed more casually and develop without an explicit structure. It can be just as simple as approaching someone you admire or has a quality you wish to emulate.

The biggest difference between the two, said Nicole Enright, vice president of marketing and strategy acceleration at Avnet Technology Solutions, Phoenix, is simply that formal mentoring has detailed goals and procedures to achieve them.

[Related: Empowering Women In The Channel ]

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Alison Challman, vice president, HP marketing and brand strategy at Avnet Technology Solutions, spoke to the success of the informal approach. For example, she said a woman in her organization approached her because she wanted to improve communication with her superiors and felt that Challman had that quality. Challman was able to work with her, acting as a sounding board for ideas and coaching messages until the woman felt comfortable communicating and even received some positive feedback from an executive.

"It's great for me because I'm seeing her improve and great for her in seeing a difference in communicating with the customer," Challman said. "I think there's a lesson in that for people who are mentors you need to be approachable."

In the end, it doesn't matter as much where the relationship starts as what it eventually develops into. Barbara Beckner, vice president of federal programs at Denver-based Global Technology Resources Inc. (GTRI), said any mentoring relationship should be a selfless one.

"It's probably the simple things. Listen. Don't judge. Try to be open-minded with any issues they are coming to you about...to make them feel comfortable and safe. Just share your experience as much as possible in an open manner," Beckner said.

No matter which approach is taken, the Women of the Channel executives interviewed by CRN all agreed that mentoring, in some form, is how women in the IT industry will advance their careers.

"I absolutely think it is crucial. Because of the evolving businesses that do business now, it is crucial to have these because everyone at some point in time, no matter how seasoned an individual or when they move to another company, having that mentor to help them wade through this new ocean is important," said Lana Akamine, program manager, global partner enablement at Red Hat, Raleigh, N.C..

The Women of the Channel executives all also agreed that while mentoring is obviously helpful for the one being mentored, it is also very rewarding for those doing the mentoring.

"We all spend so many hours working in the day, it's the richness of the relationships we build that are the most satisfying part of it," said Caroline Hinton, vice president of strategic partnerships, software, at Insight, Tempe, Ariz. "When I really look at mentoring, it's not just about career, it's about life. Whatever challenges come up in work, there's a big chance it's coming up in other areas of life. It brings holistic value to my life," she said.

Also, for the company itself, mentoring provides a view into the next generation of leadership.

Avnet's Challman said she "gets a lot out of being a mentor" for herself but it also gives her a chance to see some of the up-and-coming talent within the organization. Hinton agreed, saying that building lasting relationships provides consistency across her career and adds a "whole other element to the role" by connecting with people she admires.

NEXT: Devloping A Formal Mentoring Practice

For those companies looking to develop formal mentoring practices in their own organizations, it is important to build structure, goals and time commitments around the initiatives. Denna Mensch, vice president, technology solutions, at Synnex, Fremont, Calif., said she found this out firsthand as the distributor is currently piloting its formal mentoring program. Before the program, employees would reach out to each other informally for mentoring, but she said that left a gap for women too shy to step up or those who were newer to the industry.

"Obviously, the goals are a little different [in each of the programs], but the overarching message that we're bringing to the women in the organization is that there is a place for them to connect with one another and they can connect in a way they feel best fits their needs," Mensch said. "It's really about letting people use the resources that we're providing in a way that makes them a better employee."

The program builds on the community that Synnex already has with its F2F initiative to bring together women in the industry, including Synnex employees, resellers and vendors.

Synnex has a variety of programs for its female employees but the mentoring has been the most difficult aspect to develop, Mensch said, because while many are interested in participating there is a large time commitment. Synnex built a workbook and a subcommittee to dig through surveys filled out by interested applicants to help match them to mentors based on geography, questions, weaknesses and more. Once paired up, the mentors and the ones they mentor are expected to set three long-term goals for development and to meet every other week for at least an hour.

Despite all of the nuances and challenges in putting together a large-scale program, Mensch said that it has "been a great experience so far" and that the three relationships since the October launch have proved very successful. She said there are already more than 50 people in line to get mentors and Synnex hopes to expand the program throughout the organization.

The program is focused on females, according to Mensch, but doesn't exclude men that also want to get involved. Many of the other Women of the Channel executives said they also have similar support from men in their own mentoring programs.

There isn't a wrong way to get a program started, Red Hat's Akamine said—the program and option just needs to exist for women. The most fundamental part is to make sure all of the support mechanisms are in place, everything from training to guidance to recruiting and pairing up individuals.

"Putting together a label that says you have a mentoring program is easy, but having the structure and support behind that is a little harder," Akamine said.

Avnet's Enright agreed, citing Nike's motto of "Just do it," and saying it just takes a person passionate about women in the workplace to get the ball rolling.

"It doesn't take a lot of time to get it set up, but what it does take is someone really passionate to bring the women together," Enright said. That passion is contagious, she added, and will lead to women all over the company getting excited to work together.

Beyond that, the women advised companies in the channel looking to get started with a mentoring program to take a look at the many strong examples out there, from Women of the Channel executives and more, and don't limit it to your own organization, as many of the women's companies invited partners, vendors and customers to join their programs. In the end, having a mentoring program in place helps take the company and the channel one step further toward cementing diversity and encouraging women in the workplace, Avnet's Challman said.

"The truth is you want to be able to embrace the strength of women and men and, when you do, the outcome is going to be so much better. I think companies realize that and are working toward that and we are seeing progress. Are we there yet? No. But we're certainty on the path," Challman said.