Woman in Tech Leader of the Year Sue Graham Johnston: How To Be a Good Mentor and a Great Advocate

Updated: Jan 11

Tech Ascension Awards “Woman in Tech Leader of the Year” Sue Graham Johnston of Juniper Networks spoke with us about the importance of helping to build a more diverse technology community. In this Q&A, Sue shares how not just to be a great mentor, but also how to use your leadership position to open doors and create opportunities for women and minorities.


You can also listen to Sue's feature interview on The Cyber Jack Podcast where she speaks to the the succesful M&A Juniper completed of 128 Technology and how other organizations can use the scucess as a framework to merge cutting-edge technology and top talent.

What does it mean to be a great mentor in today’s business environment?


The same it always has - share your time, advice, lessons learned - and most importantly - your connections - to help those around you who need it. Put simply, being a mentor is passing on your skills and using your platform to help. This can be top talent on your team that you feel isn’t getting the opportunities they deserve, or who need the extra push, or those who are often traditionally overlooked, such as women and minorities.


In today’s environment, some employees are having different workplace experiences than others, due to remote working and the pandemic. Recognizing that and understanding who in your organization can benefit - and in what ways they can benefit - will make you a successful mentor.


What are some ways that those in leadership can provide mentorship and advice in a hybrid/remote working model?


The pandemic has changed the traditional way of mentoring, for sure. But while you can’t just pop into someone’s office or grab them for a quick cup of coffee like before, there are some ways that the current work environment has helped the process.


When your team is remote, it helps bring more focus and efficiency to your transactions with them. You can focus on who on your team you should work with - and have direct, scheduled time to review goals, struggles and to plan out next steps.


I’ve also found that mentoring remotely has brought a greater focus from mentees on what they want from their career - and on taking the steps they need to get there. So, while the relationship isn't necessarily in-person, a strong, helpful connection can still be made.

You mention the importance of not just mentoring, but being an advocate for women and minorities within an organization. Can you describe what that means and how to do so?


Mentoring is very important - without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That said, the practice of advocating for an employee can be even more helpful, helping to give them the opportunity for growth and success that they might not otherwise have.


What advocating means is to go beyond just giving advice or guidance to someone you’re working with. It means being an ally - standing up for them and making a case for them - when they’re not in the room.


Many minorities, younger employees and even those you consider your top talent won’t advocate for themselves and need that assistance to secure the opportunity they deserve.


Why is it so important for those in leadership roles to work to make a more diverse workplace?


Without a diverse voice present at the table, not only are you not providing true representation to those you service and employ, you’re missing out on having a diverse point-of-view that can see things differently or share approaches you haven’t even considered. Recent data shows that almost 25% of CIOs at Fortune 500 companies identify as female. To truly understand and speak to a large portion of your potential audience you need a similar voice within your company.


Can you describe a successful mentorship/diversity and inclusion program you were involved with in your career - and what you learned from it?


I’ve been very fortunate to work with many incredible women leaders - some who have helped me literally from my first promotion all the way to today. I feel it is my responsibility to pay that effort forward with the next generations of employees.


When I was at Oracle, I joined the Oracle Women’s Leadership group. The emphasis of this group was on developing leadership skills and sharing the common experiences about what worked and did not work in being an effective female leader at a large technology company.


At 128 Technology, I set up a women’s group, creating formal and informal methods for the women on the team to get to know each other. Women came in to talk about technologies and trends such as bitcoin and blockchain, share advice on how to get on to Boards, and to highlight the trials and tribulations of starting their own companies.


I also currently mentor women PhD candidates through the Women in Science and Engineering mentoring program at the Boston Museum of Science. It’s really energizing to directly connect with those at the early stages of their careers. I love being able to share advice and lessons learned in the hope that they’ll have an easier path than those before them.


Can you describe what is being done at 128 Technology/Juniper Networks to help promote diversity or to help mentor younger staff?


While I was at 128 Technology, which was acquired by Juniper Networks almost a year ago, we chose to improve the diversity of our recruiting practices. When it came to the 2020 fall career fair season, we made an effort to attend career fairs with schools that put an emphasis on the importance of diversity. We traditionally have hired engineering talent during career fair season, and this past year aimed to attend career fairs of schools in the Northeast that have at least a 10% black and/or Latino population and have a highly ranked engineering program. That was a tall order in New England, where the majority of the population in these states can be upwards of 80% white.


Due to the pandemic, we adapted our onboarding process and mentorship program and proved we can effectively bring people on board remotely. This gives us an even better opportunity next year to cast our recruiting net outside of New England, to schools that have a much larger and more diverse footprint. By early 2021, we were at the point where every function in the company had both gender and ethnic diversity, a dramatic improvement from where we stood when I joined.


Now, as part of Juniper Networks, we can take advantage of the many resources of a large corporation committed to diversity and inclusion.


Who would you say was your greatest mentor? How did they help your career?


Eugene McCabe was an executive I worked for at Sun Microsystems. When Eugene first met me, I was Acting Director of the Supply Management organization. HR had blocked my consideration for Director, but Eugene fully supported me in the acting role, and fought the internal battles to have me promoted to Director.


He taught me to help younger employees navigate career paths by explaining to them the skills and roles that matter for getting to VP/EVP/CEO levels; especially women, who tend to get sidelined into functions without P&L responsibility or core product delivery, which stifles their progress.


What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?


“Ignore the whiners,” meaning separate out the people who will complain because you are driving hard and up-ending the status quo from the people who really are necessary for the success of your program or agenda.


If one of our readers wants to start mentoring after reading this, how would you recommend they get started?


Everything you do that can help another employee’s career is helpful, your first step doesn’t need to be the establishment of a company-wide mentorship program.


Think about your team. What can you do to accelerate the growth of your best talent? Are there members of your team that could use some help navigating their career path? Think about your career and the stages where you either received some assistance, or, looking back, realize that some assistance would have been beneficial. Learn from those experiences and take the time to be that someone who helps the younger members of your team, as well as those top talents.


The first step is to then sit down and talk with these individuals. Learn what they’re struggling with, what they’re successful with, and where they could most benefit from advice and a guiding hand. And then take action to help them, be it through training, advocating for them within the organization, or setting a plan of action to grow their career. The rest will fall in line from there.


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