Opinion: Women’s networks are key to leadership success

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High achievers have an inner circle of contacts: study

A research study released in January offers some very good news for women wanting to reach their leadership goals. It couldn’t have come at a better time: March 8 is International Women’s Day, and while there have been undeniable improvements for women, there’s still a glass ceiling when it comes to leadership roles.

In Canada, women make up just 9.4 percent of C-level executives of the top 100 publicly traded companies and less than a quarter of Financial Post 500 directorship positions, according to Catalyst, a New York–based non-profit that supports workplaces for women. In the U.S., female CEOs run less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and held only 21.2 percent of board seats at S&P 500 companies in 2018.

The study, “A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success,” by researchers Yang Yang, at Northwestern University; Nitesh V. Chawla, at the University of Notre Dame; and Brian Uzzi, at the Kellogg School of Management, found that 77 percent of the highest-achieving women had strong ties with an inner circle of two to three other women with whom they communicated frequently.

Yang, Chawla and Uzzi tracked the careers of more than 700 male and female MBA graduates to see the level of leadership authority each had obtained. Here’s what they learned:

  • High-placing women had an inner circle of female friends who supported one another in their career moves. These women found that the sharing of specific information such as details about a company’s workplace culture for women and social support was extremely useful as they navigated new opportunities in male-dominated settings.
  • The members of these inner circle groups were not insular. Each had a network of contacts different from those of the other individuals in the group. Although these inner circles were small, sometimes no more than three other women, each one acted as a bridging network to diverse connections not reachable through the other contacts.

Start now
While the term “old boys’ network” has a whole lot wrong about it, including that men probably don’t appreciate “old boy” as a moniker, the news that women-only inner circles are as effective as male ones is useful. It provides an advancement strategy for all women, no matter where they are in their career, because there’s still some hard slogging ahead. According to 2018 World Economic Forum research, at the current rate of change, it would take 202 years to bring about parity in the workplace.

Why wait two centuries? All women should begin building an inner circle network now. Here are five steps to get you started.

1. Rise with the tide
This is not a mentor-mentee relationship you’re looking for; it’s like-minded women who have similar career goals. You’ll all be moving up in your career at about the same time. In five years, where will you be? In 10 years? Imagine the access to experience and information you’ll have if you maintain close connections with this inner circle. For senior women already in the C-suite, developing or enhancing your inner circle is a good strategic move.

2. Build trust to make it work
An all-female inner circle will be much stronger if everyone tries to help one another on a regular basis, instead of only accessing this network when someone needs something. If your inner circle is committed to sharing knowledge and opportunities, it will be the glue that keeps busy women like yourselves bonded throughout your careers.

3. Look for other dynamic women
What kind of women should be in your inner circle? They should be active and engaged in their own networks and have connections that are different from yours. Find an association, community organization or women’s network where you can take on a volunteer leadership role or be part of a volunteer board. You’ll meet women with different backgrounds or areas of expertise and at every career level. For ideas, check out the Web Alliance, a B.C.-based women’s business network representing some 27,000 women throughout the province.

4. Don’t worry about scarcity
There was a time when women held so few roles with companies and professional organizations that they competed with one another for that career-boosting job. There are now abundant opportunities because there’s a workforce full of amazing women, all of whom need their own inner circles.

5. Put your plan in play
The Yang, Chawla and Uzzi study offers some of the most refreshing and encouraging news for women in 2019. Check out this short article in the Washington Post and put a plan in play to start building your own inner circle network. Who should be in yours?

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac, principals of Shepa Learning Company, are keynote speakers and authors of Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life (Penguin/Prentice Hall). They teach the skills of networking and communication to corporate clients, universities and business associations. Please sign up for their free weekly networking tip; it’s always under 200 words.