Women Networking to Lead


Our online Lean In circle led by Lisa has made me think about the power of networks and how women become leaders, especially in corporations. We had a rich resource list of videos and articles to fuel our discussion last week.

Background: Lisa started our circle online almost two years ago when the Lean In Foundation launched its discussion infrastructure to encourage women in face-to-face learning circles to take more risks and lean-in to their work challenges. Our distributed group needed to work online to connect with each other and has been online ever since.

The Foundation has provided the circles with interesting, timely, stimulating resources. As Lean In seemed to focus this year more on young women entering the workforce post-college graduation, our  experienced-women-in-the-workforce circle became more self-organizing and self-propelled, meaning that each of us brings in articles, videos, studies, etc. about leadership, women in the workplace, communication styles, and stereotypes to discuss.  We always leave our 60-90 minute discussions enriched with new ideas and perspectives, and valuing each other, too.

One of the articles in the line-up led me to a report on a study presented by University of Colorado professors David Hekman, Maw Der Foo, and Wei Yang at the Academy of Management in August 2014. It asserted that the glass ceiling remains in companies because only white men can promote women or ethnic minority men and women into the executive suite without negative consequence. If a woman or a minority person tries to hire other people like themselves, “their bosses are likely to hold it against them.” The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that nonwhite and women leaders may increase their own chances of advancing up the corporate ladder by actually engaging in a very low level of diversity-valuing behavior… By downplaying their race and gender, these leaders may be viewed…as worthy of being promoted into the highest organizational echelons.” Aha! It isn’t women refusing to help other women as much as there is a limit on how much diversity is welcomed in the executive offices. White men, the current majority occupants on the top floor, continue to hold the keys to the executive suite through their hiring decisions and recommendations.

When women are struggling to enter the executive domain, networks–online, blended, and face-to-face–outside the corporation can both offer the possibility of promotions elsewhere as well as leveraging one’s value to the current employer.  Below is a two minute video by Dalton Conley that explains how weak ties that connect networks enable the development of relationships, job potential, learning, and new alliances.

This humorous visualization captures for me how networks form from one-to-one conversation and discovery. Another good resource on LLC_logo_200building leadership reliant on networks and networking has been developed by the Leadership Learning Community. LLC is concerned with “promoting leadership as a process that is more inclusive, networked and collective” in the nonprofit sector. Some of their members have identified core principles for leading with a network mindset in their paper on Leadership and Networks: New Ways of Developing Leadership in a Connected World visible here. I believe these principles also apply to leadership in the corporate sector.

The paper notes that the “heroic leadership model” may work in “solving and managing technical problems, it is “a liability when it comes to tackling complex, systemic, and adaptive problems.”Some leadership attitudes and actions that stand in the way of adopting a new leadership mindset” include “an unwillingness to share learning or models for fear of losing competitive advantages or losing control of your brand” and “hierarchical planning processes that limit input and new ideas by failing to engage stakeholders beyond the voices of an inner circle.”

Instead, the paper advocates these principles for “leadership that achieves large-scale change”.

  • Connecting and weaving—A strategy to “intentionally introduce and link people together to strengthen their bonds and build bridges among groups that are already not connected…These connections also help people self-organize and experiment around common interests, forming many collaborative projects and initiatives.”  
  • “Doacracy” and self-organizing—People need opportunity “to take action on their ideas … someone’s willingness to step up and do a particular task is a rationale for having that person be the one to do the task.” Platforms or open spaces that encourage people to self-organize to do work that matters can also lead to bridges to other networks and meaningful impacts elsewhere.
  • Learning and risk taking“Rapid-cycle prototyping solutions and the capacity to quickly learn what works and what does not are essential for getting results.” Learn from failure and move on to the next experiment.

My interest in women moving into higher leadership roles has also been stimulated by articles about women’s networks, particularly company-led and supported networks.  These “networks” have ostensibly been created by companies for their women employees whom they wish to keep and groom for leadership roles.  I haven’t seen data measuring their success in growing leadership.  But they have challenged my thinking.  One, are they truly networks when they are boundaried by the company?  Can a network based on gender enable women to move into higher leadership roles?  And can a company-sponsored network foster the “development of leadership in a connected world?”  When I think of network, it is with the idea of how linkages promote diversity of thought, connection, and action that cross boundaries of all kinds. The merit of a women’s network within a single company gave me something to mull over and then triggered a stronger reaction.

It reminded me initially of the Power Squadron safe boating classes I took as a senior in high school. If a woman passed the test after completing the classes, she, of course, had acquired the intended knowledge. But socially, she went into the Squadron Auxiliary which organized food and beverages for the learners and Squadron members, 90% of them men who hoped to own a boat someday, or did own, drive or sail a boat. I dropped out of the class once it became clear that my terminal fate was to fire up the coffee pot and arrange snacks for the male-led gatherings. Of course, newspaper ads could still legally categorize “jobs for women” and “jobs for men” back then, too. And guess what, the opportunities offered to each varied in status, pay, and growth potential. How soon we forget (or not!).

When women are struggling to enter the executive domain occupied by men who often build relationships with peers and superiors on the golf course, a women’s network designed and controlled by a company is counter-intuitive and could be corporate purdah: a curtain separating the women from seeing the men and the men seeing the women in the next room. I believe that women, and men, need  to network freely to build weak ties that could become stronger as individuals form small groups to work on important issues held in common. Company leaders need to encourage their employees with explicit permission and time to act on their curiosity and connect with others INSIDE and OUTSIDE the organization who do similar or very dissimilar kinds of work, in order to build connections of ideas and people.  For instance, Lisa’s post in April on What Young Entrepreneurial Women Can Teach Us suggests “using Twitter to find mentors …finding not one mentor but a “village” of mentors” is now possible and desirable” with this social networking tool. Segregating genders into their own quarters (networks?) could backfire as a leadership development strategy in my opinion.

Having said that, we created the Women’s Studio as a safe place for women (and men if they’re game) to “enhance your digital skills, manage your online overload, develop online leadership skills and save valuable time by identifying digital tools that meet your needs and make your life easier.” We are all about helping each other learn, lead, and connect online while manifesting the network leadership principles advocated by the Leadership Learning Center.

People find us because they want what we offer. It is a lot different from a company sponsored women’s network … or is it?

There may be valid reasons for a women’s network in a company, a special supportive place to grow leadership competence and confidence  in women. Especially if the women’s network is truly an incubator for new ideas, behaviors, and connections, is somewhat self-organized and relies on the initiative of participants to design and carry out a growth experience that is relevant and valuable to them (such as our online LeanIn circle). Otherwise it could be a holding room with a coffee machine that women maintain. And where’s the fun or future in that?

Please tell us what you think in the comments below.


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Photo credit for silhouettes image to Geralt at Pixabay

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  1. […] out loud, and work as a learning experience (see our previous blogs Sighting Leadership in Action, Women Network to Lead, and Take the Lead in Learn, Lead, Connect […]

  2. […] a couple of weeks ago, we wrote in this blog about the Leadership Learning Community’s recommendations to build […]

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