Creating a Successful Women's Career Support System

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Women Executive Supply Management Summit (WESMS)

San Antonio, TX
February 2009


Monica Painter, Associate Partner, IBM Global Business Services

Monica Painter laid the foundation for her session on developing, implementing and managing women's career support programs by defining what networks are, exactly: personal relationships that help us stay informed, develop opinions, make decisions and accomplish work goals. However, as Painter pointed out, these relationships often — and should — fall outside immediate work teams, direct reports or bosses.

Networking: Men vs. Women

According to Painter, men and women network very differently. Primarily, the disparity lies in women's less strategic, more emotional "strong ties" approach, which focuses on drawing in friends and family. Men, on the other hand, typically focus on developing "weak ties" with coworkers and business colleagues.

"Ironically, the weak ties work better!" Painter said.

Guilt is another key difference in how men and women network, according to Painter. Although women often feel guilty about enlisting their networks, she urged them not to: "Men do it all the time!"

Building and Maintenance

It's a valid question: Do you really need a women's network at your organization? And Painter has an immediate answer — absolutely!

Four strategies can get the ball rolling: (1) decide what you want to accomplish with the group, (2) identify the organization's culture, (3) assess the environment and (4) gauge potential support.

"Think of this process as [laying down] a charter," Painter explained. "You'll need a mission statement."

Beyond this groundwork, building an effective women's network takes four more steps, according to Painter: (1) commitment — from yourself, others in the organization and executives, (2) skill, (3) diversity and (4) collaboration.

Finally, maintaining the network requires asking some key questions:

  • Do you know who to approach to get things done?
  • Have you identified the people and departments you should be working with?
  • Have you executed a plan to maintain contact with the people in your network?
  • Do you continue to network with people you need, as well as those who need you?
  • Do you take the larger organization's goal into account when making decisions or taking action?
  • Are your interactions with support and control organizations mutually successful?

"Remember, maintaining your networks is as important as building them," she added. "Can you answer yes to each of these questions? If not, work on increasing the scope of your network."

Networking Basics

Painter then offered a handful of simple, yet effective, networking approaches. For instance, she recommended contacting people in your network just to stay in touch. "Networking is all about relationships," she cautioned. "If you only call them when you need them, those relationships will fail."

Active listening, the resolution of differences, using power and influence for mutual benefit, and keeping commitments are all instrumental, as well, she added. Other good tenets include sharing resources and ideas, getting to know each other's nonwork interests and actively recognizing the contributions of others.

"Again, these are all tenets of good relationships, period," Painter explained. "It doesn't matter if it's your friends, your spouse or your coworkers."

Of course, everyone in your network will have his or her own communication preferences. To this end, Painter highlights the necessity of keeping an open mind. For example, while she prefers to get on and off a conference call as quickly as possible, others in her network prefer the small-talk approach.

Painter also recommended really investigating your assumptions about how people should get things done; they will not always mesh with your own. "Ask people what they need from you in the process," she advised. "Don't just assume."

Keeping an open mind also means avoiding quick judgments, exercising patience and learning to tolerate ambiguity and complexity.

Key Considerations

Ensuring your women's network is most beneficial for you and for the others involved requires an organizational structure that efficiently uses everyone's time and resources. It also requires committed, energetic leaders who can maintain group momentum.

"At IBM, a male executive has offered major support for our women's networking group. He has even spoken at our meetings," Painter explained. "That's always a good incentive for people to show up — direct access to a superior or senior-level executive."

Painter also shed some light on some of the not-so-pleasant realities of establishing formal women's networks within your organization, beginning with the all-volunteer-army dynamic they so often represent. "You have to be responsive to what folks want," she advised. "You've got to be flexible, and you've got to beware of burnout."

Social networking was another point of interest for Painter, because it seems frivolous to many executives. "After all, millions of workers are wasting precious hours in cubicles around the world comparing their favorite flicks on Facebook or Twittering about what they had for lunch," she explained.

However, social networking remains essential in a global economy, according to Painter. "Most people are too far away to plop down in a teammate's cubicle or grab a cup of coffee," she said. "These social tools provide a substitute for personal connections that flew away with globalization."

Above all, Painter urged attendees to remember how critical networking is to their career development. "It can be formally or informally structured, but you need buy-in," she said. "When you have that, it's a proven, effective tool."

They Had Questions. She Had Answers.

After concluding her session, Painter fielded a number of attendee questions, including:

Q: What's the first step toward establishing a women's networking group?

A: "You need key leaders' advocacy," Painter began. "Ask yourself who, from the executive suite, can help you get it off the ground." This support does not necessarily need to come from a woman, she clarified; it could also be from a male executive who truly believes in the group's potential.

As a testimony to Painter's advice, one attendee explained how enlisting a top-level executive to serve on a panel discussion during a networking event resulted in a 30-percent higher group retention rate.

Finally, Painter encouraged attendees to evolve beyond work-based networking. "Focus on professional development in general," she advised. "Or maybe focus on community service."

Q: Is networking effective across global divides?

A: "Yes — the basic premise, anyway," Painter answered. "Knowing people who can help you advance is always helpful."

Q: What effect has the Internet had on networking?

A: "It's made it very effective and time-efficient," Painter said. However, as she pointed out, networks are based on trust and reciprocity, "and those are hard to develop over the Web."

Q: How much of a financial investment will I need to get the ball rolling?

A: "You'll absolutely need executive buy-in and monetary support, especially in these economic times," Painter admitted. At IBM, for example, a budget is allotted for such activities. "But you can still be successful without a lot of money," she clarified.

Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh

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