6 Trends Driving Cutting-Edge Corporate Women’s Networks

It’s time to reimagine corporate women’s networks.

A new study by researcher Shawn Achor shows that women’s forums that strike a healthy mix of social connection, support, and motivation create lasting intellectual, professional, and financial results for female participants. In addition, a 2017 study showed 86% of female respondents believe participating in their corporate women’s networks, or employee resource groups (ERGs) specifically benefitted them and their career. And a whopping 70% of those respondents said their women’s ERGs had actually helped to create policy changes at work.

So why aren’t more leaders turning to corporate women’s networks—or ERGs—for their ability to help break down barriers, turn up engagement, and provide new insights?

Too often, these networks are underestimated. Also, in plenty of cases, they’re averse to change. Yet, one observation from the most successful companies we’ve consulted with and trained is that they continuously improve these groups just like they would evolve a critical product or service.

The best practices below show how successful women’s networks can reinvigorate their initiatives to be more inclusive and impactful:

1. Become an Intelligence Engine

Surveying women’s networks on their preferences about professional development activities is commonplace enough. But undertaking a study of the female experience for your organization is a strong demonstration that you want women to feel a sense of belonging. Ann Finkner, SVP & Chief Administrative Officer at Farm Credit Services of America (FCSA) recounts: “Instead of assuming we knew what we should address, we engaged a third party to facilitate a study that included a survey of female employees, interviews with current and former female employees, focus groups, and a review of our policies and practices. ”The insights gained from the study were many, starting with the fact that women had more interest in advancement and leadership than was evident from leader-completed talent assessments, yet were concerned about their prospects to advance. Finkner concludes: “Our flat structure limited the advancement opportunities for women.”

Conducting such a comprehensive study does more than simply inform leaders about the experience of women. It can also further credentialize the work and membership of the network. “The research showed that leaders are thinking more about what the pipeline should look like in terms of gender and they are more proactively encouraging qualified individuals to apply for leadership roles,” says Mary Anne Mullen, VP Credit & Leader of FCSA’s Team Catalyst, the company’s women’s ERG. “The research reinforced the idea that women want to advance, and providing opportunities for development, networking, and mentoring is imperative to achieve a gender-balanced leadership group that reflects our employee population.” It also raised awareness among their leadership and gave them a platform to take action.

2. Bolster Executive Sponsorship by Looking Outside and Inside the ERG

By now, we’ve all heard that executive sponsorship is important to the success of an ERG. But what about having an influential, connected chair running the group?

Sneh Virdi, VP of Finance at Legrand and President of Elle @ Legrand NA is a case in point. “The success of our women’s network–Elle @ Legrand NA–was difficult to imagine a few years ago,” says Virdi. She continues: “As the VP of Finance, I was in a fortuitous position organizationally to be able to set up a process at the beginning of year where I simply bill business units a set amount for Elle’s budget. Luckily, I already had relationships in place which helped to create a sustainable financial model.” Virdi explains that other women’s networks may fumble when there’s either no money and no bridges in place across the business. “For us, having a chair who already had strong relationships – rather than having to start from scratch – has made things so smooth,” she says.

Virdi is quick to credit the many volunteers who manage local sites and circles and various Elle activities. Elle also has unequivocal support and encouragement from CEO John Selldorff. But where other groups might have highly engaged grassroots volunteers and a single executive sponsor, Virdi convenes often with a committed group of senior women who form the Elle executive committee.

3. Promote Men’s Belonging

Bolstering men’s participation in women’s networks can require thinking through everything from a long-term vision and strategy to the simplest marketing signifiers. Case in point, when eBay and PayPal were a single corporate entity, their women’s ERG was called eBay Women in Technology or eWIT. Shortly after PayPal spun off from eBay in 2016, the PayPal women’s ERG relaunched with a new identity called Unity. “eWIT’smission had expanded beyond women in technology,” says Nolwenn Godard, Director of Product Management and former President of Unity.“After pairing that with PayPal’s commitment to championing people, it was clear we needed to find an identity that could be more inclusive and more PayPal.”

Julia Borghini, Global Brand Strategy & Brand lead for Unity continues: “Once we found the name [Unity], we needed to think about the visual identity. Now, the logo that visually expresses Unity in such a clear and poignant way is a profile of a man and a woman. We increased participation, including that of men who volunteered as mentors, leaders that could be shadowed, and teachers for our Kids in Tech program.”The group even increased the number of executives joining roundtable conversations, women seeking a sounding board for the challenges they face in the workplace, and men wanting to better to understand the challenges of their female colleagues.

Amy Arora, Senior Director, Corporate Development and President of Unity, sums it up: “Unity is about women and men coming together to help create more opportunities for women. It’s a story about gender balance that focuses on the feeling we get when we proudly stand next to each other and make each other stronger.”

4. Turn ERG Volunteer Roles into True Career Development Opportunities

While ERGs can provide opportunities to muscle-up on hard skills, they also build on the subtleties of softer skills.“We turned our committee roles into a development program for our volunteers, matching opportunities to their job profiles,” says Christina Roberts Kisner, who works on Field Service Marketing Integration/PCM Integration at Siemens and was formerly Chair of the Women’s Information Network @ Siemens (WIN@S) at Siemens Energy, Inc. in Orlando. “That way, they were able to say that they’re not just in event planning, but learning project management, budgeting and finance skills.”

Volunteers were given a risk-free environment in which to develop new skills that would ultimately add value to the business. Adds Kisner: “When I was Chair of WIN@S, I took the opportunity for my own leadership development, and advanced my presentation skills. I’ve gotten a chance to speak in front of 10 to 300 people, meet executives, and become more polished in my speaking. I tended to be very shy and hide behind the cubicle. This has allowed me to stretch, gain exposure, and network in a different way. And now a lot of executives have seen what I am able to do.”

Where many ERGs go out of their way to appreciate and recognize their volunteers, Kisner went one step further. Volunteers’ contributions to the ERG and to their own professional development was brought to the attention of their managers. “We always did an end-of-the-year celebration where every volunteer got a plaque,” says Kisner. “We invited their managers, and said, ‘Thank you, we appreciate you, and want you to know that you are adding value to our organization.’”

5. Think Globally, Act Locally

How does an organization promote a sense of belonging across cultures? Weave, scatter, and intermingle leaders and members. One such example is Women at Expedia Learning and Leading (WELL), supported by a Corporate Diversity and Inclusion team that provides company-wide women’s leadership initiatives and career development opportunities. Now in growth mode, WELL has almost 30 chapters globally, many of which are creating dynamic programming on a local level.

“In Gurgaon, India, WELL hosted six events in 2017, and executives from all over the globe spoke about their career journeys, delivering effective presentations on thinking strategically and thriving in a male-dominated workplace,” explains Käri Mack, Director of People Inclusion and Strategy. In Austin, Texas, Expedia’s HomeAway division did not have any formal programs in 2017. One year later, they’ve established a Women in Tech affinity group with more than 50 members. They host monthly meetings and panel discussions on implicit bias, perform community outreach with local organizations, and run a mentoring program. “In partnering with the data science team, they also instituted a blind résumé process, which is showing a positive impact on diversity in hiring,” says Mack.

6. Build Bridges to Top Female Leaders

When employers consult with us, we explain that when rising stars look up and see few leaders who are female; those stars may dismiss their own interest in a top role—seeing it as implausible. Put another way, they want to see it to be it. Creative companies are findings ways to showcase their established female leadership and connect them to aspiring leaders.

Heather Howell, Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader at IBM illustrates how this “two-fer” can work via the company’s Advancing Women at IBM research study, which she led. IBM wanted to learn about the career paths of their executive women—their experiences, the hurdles they faced, and what the company could learn from their personal narratives. “Over 600 women executives volunteered to participate,” says Howell. “With such a large number of participants, we included our high-potential women as the interviewers and gave them the opportunity to connect with top executives one-on-one, expand their networks, and document their learnings.” Outside of a top education, one can imagine that this exercise helped interviewers personally while underscoring the belief that female leaders are real.

By striving to continuously improve their women’s networks, top employers acknowledge an ultimate truth when it comes to managing and engaging talent: what got you here won’t get you there. Many ERGs are contributing to the success of their organizations by increasing the talent pipeline of women, fostering relationships and belonging, and ensuring alignment between their business and diversity initiatives. These ERGs are not just good for business, they are essential.

What is one thing your ERG has done that strikes you as uniquely relevant, innovative, or forward-thinking? Share your best practices in the comments section below.

This article appeared at HR.com on March 3, 2018 (Login required. Sign up for free.)

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Jo Miller & Selena Rezvani

Jo Miller is dedicated to helping women around the world advance into positions of leadership and influence—especially in male-dominated industries, such as technology, finance, and energy. Through her keynotes, workshops, and webinars, Jo shares the steps women can take to succeed. Jo speaks at leadership conferences, professional associations, and corporate women’s networks at companies like Amazon, eBay and Microsoft. Each year she delivers more than 70 presentations to audiences of up to 1,200 women. She has spoken in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East. Jo is CEO of Be Leaderly.
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Selena Rezvani is a recognized consultant, speaker and author on women and leadership.  A knowledgeable human capital consultant, Selena uses workplace culture assessments to help corporate clients be more inclusive and welcoming to women.  She’s also the author of two leadership books targeted at professional women – Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and The Next Generation of Women Leaders (Praeger, 2009). Selena has been featured in the LA Times, Oprah.com, Todayshow.com, Forbes, and wrote an award-winning column on women for The Washington Post. Selena is VP of Consulting and Research at Be Leaderly.
Connect Selena Rezvani
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