The Feminine Mistake | Straight Talk

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IT is still a man’s world – but only if you don’t speak up

By Itumeleng Makgati, Executive Partner – Information Management, Sasol

My IT career has been a journey of constant learning and personal development. I had experience as a consultant and now work in a large corporation, and both have required me to master complex tasks in challenging environments. But looking back, I think two of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my career involve two things that you might think would be very simple: talking and listening. Let me explain.

Talking the Talk

Of the two, I found talking the hardest when I began my career, mostly because I was, as women IT executives often say, “the only woman in the room.” I had the answers, I knew what needed to happen, but when I walked into the room and saw all those male faces, I felt unable to share my thoughts. Having all these men around me hampered how I thought, how I processed information, and the things that I would say. 

I had a conversation with my mentor about my being guarded in such situations and he suggested that I try Toastmasters, the public speaking education club. Maybe they could give me more skills and self-assurance in my speaking.    

That advice was spot on. Toastmasters has made a huge difference in my life, and I would recommend it to any leader who wants to improve her speaking skills. I’ve been involved with Toastmasters now for ten years, and I’ve reached a point where I’m coaching others.

One of the things I learned in Toastmasters is that women will sometimes use a softer voice if they are unsure that they are saying the right thing, and this can make you sound unconfident about what you are saying. And women often use a lot of qualifiers too – “maybe,” “I think we should,” “we might” – which can make you less persuasive. It’s much better, for instance, to say, “this is what should happen, or “based on my experience, this is the right thing to do.”  At some level, many of us think that qualifying our statements will protect us from being judged or criticized, but in fact, it just makes us easier to dismiss.

In the course of my ten years as a consultant at Accenture, I also picked up some speaking lessons more specific to information technology. Three of the biggest lessons there were:

  • Don’t sell the technology; sell the value the technology will bring. It’s much easier to get buy-in for a project when you’ve convinced the people who will use it that they’re going to have more time on their hands or that they’ll save money because of the solution you’re implementing.
  • You need to communicate differently to different people. Some people will not give you feedback on a conference call, for example, but will be more comfortable having a direct conversation with you afterward. Or they might prefer written communication. It’s important to try to understand what they prefer and why. This is especially important if you’re working across multiple cultures.
  • The more dispersed your team, the more focused your messages need to be. If you are communicating with a globally distributed team, make sure your message is very clear and straight to the point.  Don’t try and send multiple messages in one session.

Listening to Learn

The other set of lessons I learned on the job all had to do with listening. Of course, I had always listened, but I found that IT leadership demanded a much more active kind of listening:

  • Try to see eye to eye. You will be able to make a deeper impression and have a better sense of the local office dynamics if you meet your distant teams in person. If you can’t, video conferences can be much more effective than the telephone.
  • Get to know your stakeholders. I found out that before you implement a change, you need to talk to the people the change will affect and understand the impact – good and bad – that your solution will have on the people using the system. A lot of times we try and implement technology without realizing there may be other changes that are already happening in the business, and the people may well be exhausted as they try to keep up. It’s crucial to understand the context.
  • Look for advice. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top! People tend to think of mentorship as an early-stage activity. A mentor is viewed as someone who can help get you started, but after those early years, you’re on your own. In fact, I have found mentors to be very useful to me all the way through my career. It can be very helpful to reach out to somebody who’s done something like what you’re trying to do, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and figure everything out on your own. Depending on your objective and the goal, there’s always somebody out there who has walked the path or has some experience that they can share.

Mentors and Coaches

Define your goal, then look for somebody who has the insight and the energy that you need to show you how to achieve a goal. You don’t necessarily want to choose someone who looks like you or sounds like you as a mentor.  It’s easy to think that, because I’m a woman, I should be assigned a female mentor, or because I’m an African woman, then I need to find an African mentor. In fact, a good mentor can be anybody, anywhere in the world. If I see that this person can help teach me how to achieve the things that I want – if they have the right energy for it, and they have the experience, I reach out to them.

For example, at one point, I needed some help deciding whether to leave consulting to take an operational leadership role at Sasol. This was a big decision for me to make because I liked Accenture. On the one hand, I was engaged and I was enjoying myself. On the other, Sasol offered me an opportunity to grow in my career. I turned to a former colleague who had become an operational executive for advice. He was able to highlight the key things that I would be able to gain at Sasol that more consulting would not give me. He was also very reassuring. “Don’t be afraid to try something new,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out, you can always move back.”

I divide the people who give me advice into two groups, mentors and coaches. The mentors I use for high-level discussions, as I noted above. I call them about once a quarter. For day-to-day operations, I have people that I consider to be my coaches, people who can tell me, “This is where you should go, this is what you should consider.”

Today, it’s still not uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room. But between what I’ve learned about talking and listening and my strong support network, I no longer even think about being a woman when I sit down at the table. I focus instead on why we are here, what do we need to do, and what am I bringing to the table to ensure that we make the decision we need to make.  

The Takeaways 

As a woman in the male-dominated IT world, it’s important to focus on building your communication skills.

Being more forthright and more direct in your communication will make you more convincing.

Make sure you understand your internal clients before you roll out new technology. Their particular circumstances may hinder adoption.

Mentors aren’t just for people starting out in the business. They remain useful throughout your career.