Written by Julie Zimmer Tuesday, January 15 2013
So, you are thinking of starting a women’s network at your company and wondering where to begin? I know this is a question that is asked often, and there are no real blueprints around this. When I was asked to write this article, my first thought was “Who am I to give anyone advice around this topic?”
But as I thought about it, I realized that having the answers is less important than sharing lessons around the process in hopes that it will help provide others with information and perspective to incorporate into their own journey.
Let’s begin by looking at a few facts. The majority of large organizations have diversity groups of some sort. Some organizations have gone so far as to create a chief diversity officer or other executive level positions to manage these programs. This is easy to understand because it is good business for them to support these initiatives. They realize that it helps with employee development and retention, recruiting, as well as enhancing their corporate image. Funding of these programs can be significant, but when you consider it as a percentage of the earnings, it is a very nominal investment.
It is a different issue for the small and mid-size business where investing in a women's network is a bit more daunting. These businesses are generally more worried about expanding their profits, especially in this economy, than they are in investing and applying management time and resources to diversity programs or a women's network. Yet, the majority of women who could benefit from these programs are employed in this space.
My personal journey
As an executive at a larger mid-size firm, I knew that we would have to overcome cultural, budget and resource issues to make this happen. I knew intuitively that we needed to do something, anything, around the topic of women's issues in our organization, but what? I was invited to a luncheon on women's issues, and it was there that the decision to take action began to take shape. At that point I was intrigued, but it was all in my head. Bit by bit I began to float the idea with other women in the organization. The response was overwhelming. I was completely taken aback by the level of emotion and enthusiasm around the idea. And so I began....
Here are some of the insights I have gained in the process.
Talk to everyone who you can learn from
The key lessons I learned are:
- When we talk about women’s initiatives, we are all in this together. While we may be building a program for our organization, the goal is to lift everyone in our industry and our community up to new heights. These women understand this, so it does not matter if you are business competitors – on this issue – we are all on the same team.
- Networking around this topic is super charged. I’m not kidding here. Once we started talking about this, every single person I spoke to gave me three more who I could talk with.
- I realized that all the women I spoke with not only provided me with advice for the project but also shared insights that helped me grow personally, and for that I am truly grateful. Women who are passionate about this, without exception, have a “pay it back” attitude.
Talk to people inside your organization. In my case, I spoke to prominent women leaders within our company. I spoke with women in middle management and sales, and I spoke with women in support positions. I learned that there was a real NEED for the initiative, BUT the objectives of the group were very diverse.
For example: Women in top management positions seemed to gravitate toward the goal of engaging female customers and leveraging the initiative to drive sales and customer retention efforts. Our middle managers seemed to be more interested in mentoring and driving more career growth opportunities. The women in non-management positions seemed to be looking for development, but there was an underlying theme in their comments that made me believe they were also looking for respect and recognition. This presented a bit of a challenge for us. Knowing that you can’t boil the ocean, we had to arrive at a clear direction.
Our Women’s Network – a false start…
I started to build the strategy, and as many of us do... I started with a PowerPoint! I approached it as a business case. It was all there – vision, mission, structure, goals, obstacles, budgets and, of course, ROI. I called a meeting of all the senior women leaders in the firm to review the “charter” document. And that is exactly what happened: We went through it like we would any other business plan. We all agreed about the need for the initiative, but no one was truly inspired; no one jumped on it. They all seemed glad to go along with what we did, but the energy that had seemed to drive it was not there.
What I ended up with was a well-put-together body of work that was completely uninspired. I had taken something that we were all passionate about and turned it into pure business case scenarios. It was completely over-engineered with advisory committees, reporting metrics, KPI and controls. I was disappointed to say the least. Not in the team they were amazing. I was disappointed in myself.
So I gave myself a time-out. At the time, I was dealing with some personal issues, and I needed to step back and reflect on how to make this work. I also needed to give myself permission to evolve this thing naturally as opposed to forcing a cultural change. I have never been one to be happy with baby steps, but that is what was required for this to work.
During my time-out, I attended more events and talked frequently with women who had made this work. I narrowed the focus to make it manageable. I started to think and talk about the initiative, not in terms of a formalized structure, but as individual promotional events for women. I found that people could get their heads around that easier. I also started inviting influential men in our organization to women’s events offered by our trading partners – so they could see the positive impact. I also began to use some of our marketing budget to sponsor initiatives launched by others. It would get our name out there and again, I could learn from it.
The Second Time Around…
We have since regrouped with a clearer focus and more defined strategy. Today, we are launching our initiative focused on external-facing events in a couple of key regions of the country. The goal is to touch our customers and our middle management and sales level employees in those regions. This approach is more effective because we can more easily tap marketing budgets rather than employee development budgets.
Are you willing to lead?
If you are the one who is thinking about initiating the process, chances are good that you also will be the one to lead it. The immediate answer many successful women will jump to is: “Yes, of course, I am successful in my career, have multiple successful initiatives under my belt and whole teams of people reporting to me. I am a leader!”
We can make decisions about strategies and evaluate performance. We can manage a P&L and navigate difficult negotiations – so of course we can lead a women's group, right? Well, think again. Here are some questions that you need to ask yourself.
- Why are you doing this? Do you think there is inequity in your organization? Are you angry? Do you think that the guys need to be enlightened? If this is your thinking, your initiative won't succeed. First off, if you are angry that will come through.
- Are you doing this to get ahead, gain recognition in the firm? Again, don't do it. The reality of the matter is that unless your organization has asked you to do this, the pioneer is not usually the one who gets the career lift from launching the initiative. This does not always hold true, but the reality is, in order to bring a women’s initiative to life, you have to break a little glass. That is not always a popular thing to do. You may open eyes and pave the way for others. If that isn't good enough then you will probably be disappointed in the outcomes.
- Are you doing this because you truly want to touch others and help them achieve their potential and make your organization aware of that potential? If so, this is the right motivation, and you are on your way to success.
Leading this type of initiative is more about being a role model than running a business. You can't be off balance, and you can't underestimate how significant all of your actions become. As the leader of this initiative, you have to be prepared to live the values that you try to inspire in others. You also have to recognize your obligation. My epiphany was when I was speaking about the women's group to a friend of mine. After I explained the idea, she looked at me and said, “I am glad you finally got around to it.” I asked what she meant by that and she said, “If you don’t do this – who will?”
At that moment, I realized that there were women in the organization who were looking to me for leadership, and here I was buried in my own little world. That was the moment I made the commitment to drive the initiative and become the positive role model I needed to be in order to make it work.
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