Getting a little outside help can do wonders for your career prospects. Sally Flood investigates the benefit of professional networking, mentoring and coaching.
Alan was in his late thirties when he first joined a career networking group. As a senior IT project manager in a major banking group, he enjoyed meeting with colleagues from other industries, and swapping tips over a few glasses of wine. Ten years on and Alan is still networking, but in a rather different capacity.
Today, he is a member of the Pudding Group, an informal network set up when his employer laid off three-quarters of its IT department as part of a global cost-cutting exercise. Pudding Group members support each other when times are tough and share information about potential job openings.
"Sometimes we might be approached by a recruiter with an opportunity that is not quite right for us but would be perfect for another member of the group," says Alan. "It has been a really good way to keep up with what is going on in the industry."
Even in the worst of circumstances, having friends in the right places can improve both your job performance and career prospects, says Roger Ellis, chairman of the IT Directors' Network. "Professional networking is no longer an option for IT professionals - it is essential," he says
Given that the average tenure of an IT director is less than four years, Ellis says most IT professionals will need to find a new job at some point in their career, and having contacts in the industry is the most effective way to do this.
"Unless you are someone headhunters will come running to as soon as you are available, how do you find a new job?" he says. "You can always answer advertisements, but there might be 300 applicants or more. Most senior IT professionals get their jobs through networks."
The key to successful career networking is knowing which friends to cultivate, and where. "For some people, networking in a large group is a disaster waiting to happen,"says Stuart Lindenfield, senior managing consultant with human resources consulting group DBM. "If you cannot talk to strangers confidently, or you get sweaty palms in large groups, then networking could actually be the kiss of death for your career."
In addition to the right social skills, networking requires a good knowledge of the industry and current affairs. "The whole point of networking is sharing ideas and experiences, and if you have no idea what someone is talking about, they are going to get bored with you and move on pretty quickly," says Ellis.
Although nobody expects you to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of database administration, Ellis advises reading the trade press and newspapers ahead of a networking event to get a feel for the big issues of the day.
Choosing the right networking group is also vital. Some groups, such as the IT Directors' Network or CIO Connect, are focused on people working in a particular role across multiple industries. These groups are ideal if you are looking for a place to share your experiences and meet like-minded individuals, but they might not be where you find a new job. Other groups, such as Eurim or the Cambridge Network, are more tightly focused on single issues or industries, and are a great source of advice and information.
To get the most out of a networking group, there are some basic rules:
- Make sure you bring a stack of business cards
- Do not talk to any one person for too long
- Remember to offer advice and support as well as ask for it
- Follow up any interesting contacts with an e-mail the next day.
"When you leave an event, write a few notes on the back of each card you were given to say what the person does and where they fit in," says Ellis. "Then drop people an e-mail the next day, just to say it was nice to meet them and you would like to keep in touch."
Lindenfield recommends this type of networking for middle and senior managers who are established in their careers and have value to bring to the group. More junior staff (or the less socially able) might benefit more from one-to-one mentoring. Coaching, meanwhile, is a more intense form of mentoring that is ideally suited for those going through a change in career or a transition in their responsibilities.
"In reality, not everyone can hold their own in a networking group," says Lindenfield. For example, if you have recently been made redundant and have taken the news hard, it might be difficult to project a confident, positive image at an industry gathering. In this situation, you really need more personalised advice on your career prospects and future.
Where networking is not quite right, IT professionals can still enhance their career prospects through coaching or mentoring. This basically means finding someone more experienced and senior inside or outside the organisation to act as an adviser, for specific issues or just general careers advice.
"Mentoring can often be helpful to someone at the beginning of their career because they need specific information about issues that many of us have already gone through," says Bob Jones, a part-time mentor and managing director of telecoms company Equinet.
Jones has set up four companies during his career, and now acts as a mentor for local IT professionals in his spare time.
"When you are at the early stages of your career you can often get so caught up in tactical stuff that dealing with the less time-critical issues gets postponed time and time again," he says. "A mentor can ask the awkward questions and, although they will not make the decision for you, they can act as a sounding board for you to test out your ideas."
James Cook, chief executive of ITprovider SpiderGroup, has worked with a mentor for the last two years. As the founder and chief executive of an internet start-up, Cook considers himself technically very able, but admits there are business issues where he needs more help.
"When it comes to bringing products to market or making recruitment decisions, having someone more experienced to balance your thinking really helps," he says.
Mentoring is ideal for Cook because he needs specific advice quickly in order to keep his business going. Cook has tried other networking opportunities, such as the Federation of Small Business, but found them too general for his needs.
Cook's mentor is Nigel Derrett, a freelance consultant who has worked at well-known technology companies including Psion and HP Labs. This experience in developing and marketing new technologies is particularly relevant to SpiderGroup's business, which is important to the mentoring relationship, Cook believes.
"Derrett really knows what it is like to create new products, how to bring them to market and what features are most important," he says. "That means he can give us concrete advice, such as that if you cannot take 40% of a market your product has to be more niche."
Derrett visits SpiderGroup's offices in Bristol every couple of months and runs workshops, in addition to providing on-call telephone support for any specific issues the company has.
"He is great because he pushes you along in the right direction without shoving advice down your throat," says Cook. "It is about developing our own thinking so we will eventually get to the point where we won't need him any more."
IT Directors' Network
A purely social networking group for IT directors and equivalent professionals working in the UK.
An online networking group that introduces businesses nationally and internationally.
Prince's Trust Leadership Forum
The Prince's Trust's technology leadership group is a networking forum for leaders of technology companies in the UK.
The £10,000 membership fee is used to help young entrepreneurs and members benefit from membership events attended by high-profile business and IT leaders.
Certus/Impact Recently merged, and now both owned by the National Computing Centre, this group of 250 members focuses on personal development and leadership skills for IT executives.
Run by the National Computing Centre, CIO Connect is a networking group for chief information officers and IT directors, with regular events around the country, a magazine and membership forums.
A private networking organisation for high-tech companies based in the Cambridge area, with a focus on high-tech start-ups.
Case study: independent view makes for better decision making
Ailsa Vaughan began her career as an aerobics instructor in Oxfordshire before entering the IT industry as a trainer for Gladstone MRM, which provides membership and customer service applications for the leisure industry.
After working for the company for several years, Vaughan was promoted to become head of operations, managing a team of database engineers and dealing with complex customer enquiries. For someone new to both technology and management, it was a daunting move.
To help cope with the transition, Gladstone provided Vaughan with an independent executive coach, who worked on her management and communication skills. The coach initially provided a series of one-to-one telephone consultations over a period of several months, followed by a two-day residential course, which was attended by eight other managers from the company.
The coaching provided Vaughan with an independent third party who could provide confidential advice on specific workplace issues. "If I had an issue with a member of staff, it was easier to talk to someone who was not part of the business, and would not be swayed by the politics," says Vaughan. "Also, because I was speaking to someone who was not part of the IT industry, she made me think about things from a completely different angle."
Vaughan believes the coaching vastly improved her communication and management skills by providing an independent assessment.
"I thought I was always quick to make decisions, but my coach helped me to see that I could be seen as not listening to other people's opinions. I realised that I can sometimes be quite sharp, and that was not helping some of my working relationships."
A year after completing the coaching, Vaughan believes her career prospects are brighter and recommends similar courses to anyone looking to move into a management role.