03/10/2014 09:48 am ET Updated May 10, 2014

Why Saying "Yes" To Mentors Can Help Women In IT Climb The Ladder

You know that saying. The one where it's better to regret doing something than to regret not doing it at all? Well, I can totally relate to this piece of wisdom now when I look at my career in IT.

Over the past six months, I developed a mentoring program for female IT undergraduates at the company I work for. Partnering with a local university, our goal was to provide an all-important support network to the students as they prepared to enter full time employment. I also wanted to give them as much exposure to the IT industry as possible and give them access to career advice they can use straight away. What I had completely underestimated was what the mentoring program would give me in return.

Mentoring these wonderful, energetic and talented young women gave me many things: the opportunity to meet with executives across the company and learn from their career journeys, the chance to see how our next generation of leaders think about the future, and (perhaps the most illuminating), the time to reflect over some of the choices (and distinct lack of choices) I made in my own 20-year career. During the course of the group mentoring program, the students and I met with more than 35 different people from the Cisco business. They ranged from vice presidents to interns, recruiters to solutions architects, business development managers to finance analysts. There were two consistent themes throughout: Say "yes" to opportunities that come your way (even if you think you aren't ready), and get yourself a mentor.

Listening to different people at Cisco talk so openly about the challenges they faced in their own careers and how they worked up the corporate ladder, I realized that I had been remiss on both counts. Sure, I have a mentor now. And sure, I say "yes" to opportunities that come my way, even if I think I'm not ready. But that was only recently.

Earlier in my career?

Absolutely not.

In fact, I would say I had made a deliberate point of not having a mentor. I had loads of excuses. Only people who want to be CEOs have mentors, right? Doesn't your mentor have to be some old wizened, eccentric dude who takes you under his wing after a chance meeting, sits on a dozen boards and runs his own wildly successful company from the back of a chauffeured limousine? And, more realistically, aren't they all super busy people with their own lives and ladders to climb? When I look back at these excuses (with some level of regret), it's pretty clear that I was avoiding mentoring for fear being rejected. Naively, I thought it was easier to just put my head down, do my job well and that would be enough to get me ahead. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Working hard, on its own, is not enough to get ahead. Especially in the fast-paced world of IT where women are in the minority and lack access to support networks and female role models to help them get ahead. You have to know how to talk about your achievements, how to take credit for what you do, how you add value to your business unit, how to ask for what you want and who can support you in getting there. These things may come naturally to some people but for the majority of us, it doesn't. And this is where a mentor can make a huge impact.

Even the way in which we think about mentors could do with a shift in mindset. When I began building the program, I talked to my female colleagues about mentoring. Their common perception was that a mentor is a coach and at times an "agony aunt." Someone to provide sage advice in sticky situations and put things into a broader perspective. When I approached male colleagues, their answer was quite different. In addition to the coaching and advice, their mentors are their supporters and advocates. They actively ask their mentors to recommend and champion them for new opportunities. Sounds completely logical but honestly this was a light bulb moment for me. I hadn't really thought to use a mentor that way at all.

All this got me thinking about the opportunities I turned down because I didn't think I was ready. It got me thinking about the opportunities I missed because I was too "chicken" to ask for a recommendation. And it got me thinking about how these students could benefit from hearing this now, as they start their careers, rather than years down the track. Maybe having access to this type of information would better set them up for success in a way that I didn't have when I first started work. When the students first started in our program, they were shy and hesitant to speak up. Positioning the group mentoring sessions as a safe environment for them to develop their own voice, coupled with one-on-one mentoring, worked wonders. By the end of the program they were eager to participate in thoughtfully considered discussions with our guest speakers, regardless of expertise or title. It was a fantastic journey to be a part of.

In developing that mentoring program for Cisco, it rammed home what a crucial role mentoring plays in developing your career. I also learnt that even though I am not an old eccentric dude who runs my company from the back of a limousine, my experience and own brand of wisdom is of value to others. Most heartening, I realized I had no reason to be afraid all those years ago. The majority of people want to help you and are generous with not only their time but insights from their own experiences. Yes, they are busy and yes, they have their own ladders to climb but helping us helps them too.

So, we shouldn't be afraid to ask someone to be our mentor and to ask those mentors to be our advocates. Having a mentor will arm you with the support and encouragement you need to say "yes" to those risky opportunities where you are full of doubt. And we shouldn't be worried about whether we sit in that corner office to be a mentor either. Your experience, perspective and insights are more valuable than you realize and sharing it comes with its own, often underestimated rewards.

I do wonder if I had a mentor earlier on in my career, would I have said "yes" to the opportunity to move away from my hometown and manage a small branch office. Would I have been as quick to say "no" because I thought I wasn't ready and didn't know how to negotiate the terms of contract? Obviously, I know I can't answer that question but it is good to know that, by mentoring others and sharing my experience, I can help other young women in IT start saying "yes."

Click here for more information on the UTS LUCY mentoring.

Cisco CSR education programs and partnerships improve access to quality education for students worldwide using the combined power of network technology and human collaboration. From the Cisco Networking Academy to mentoring at-risk inner-city students, we help prepare people of all ages to succeed in a global, technology-driven society. For more information, visit