Achieved Wisdom from Driven Women: The Importance of a Network

By: Katherine Baker and Congress London

Recently with Congress London, I hosted a panel discussion centred around Achieved Wisdom with the impressive, successful women, Deirdre Walters, Birgitta Elfversson, and Erica Allen. Now a Founding Partner at Untapped Innovation Consulting, Deirdre Walters was previously a Principal Scientist at Procter & Gamble (P&G). Birgitta is Director of Organisational Transformation with Unilever having previously worked at McKinsey and Company. Erica Allen is COO of Allbright, has an MBA at INSEAD and experience of working all over the world.

These women have overcome many challenges, for as Birgitta said, “If I try to talk about specific obstacles in my career, I don’t even know where to start. They are everywhere all the time.”It is true, these women would not be where they are today without overcoming obstacles, being resilient to change, and fighting for what they wanted. Their advice on how to do this centred around building a great network, a sisterhood and surrounding oneself with supportive friends and family.

Here are some tips from their fascinating panel discussion:

Building your network:

Deirdre accredited her network to her love of talking to people, “I guess personality-wise, I am really nosey so I want to know what is going on.” Her three business partners in Untapped Innovation worked in completely different sectors at P&G but she wanted to know what was going on in their units. She has found that people are incredibly generous with their time and advice so ask them questions and be genuinely interested in them.

Birgitta has created a vast network of colleagues and friends from all areas of her life. She says, “If you are generous, your network will build itself. One of the most important things that I have done is to figure out how I can help others.” And Birgitta does go out of her way to help others whether it is career advice, emotional support or helping with a connection. Because of her generous nature, she now has many people willing to help her should she ever need it.

Erica approaches creating her network slightly differently. Getting an MBA from INSEAD also helped her to build her network but she shared with us that she is not a natural networker and hates entering rooms and speaking to tons of people. She realises this is just not her, so instead she focuses on a small network of 30-40 people whom she relies on a lot. Erica said, “I have a tough time having hundreds of people in my network, so I just work on my smaller group and really get to know them. But networking is different for everyone and you need to find what works best for you.”

Relying on your network:

Deirdre wouldn’t be running her company with the women from P&G if it wasn’t for her ability to build a network. But her network has also helped her to be a better mom. When talking about family, Deirdre says, “The roles you have to play expand exponentially when you have kids but you have to look after yourself. You have to get enough sleep and remember there is only one of you.” Her mother and her friends helped her to remember to take care of herself. This sisterhood of support helped her stay sane and be there for her family.

Having the right people in your network:

While Birgitta has a huge network, she stresses the importance of having the right people close to you. She says, “The most important choice is the person you decide to spend your life with.” Advice that is also echoed by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, having a partner in life who supports you and shares the responsibilities of taking care of the home including the children, allows you and gives you the time to go after your career aspirations. Birgitta shared stories about when it was her husband’s time to take care of their baby daughter, he would come to the office so she could leave meetings to feed her and then return to work. It was a joint effort. The second most important person in your network is your boss. Birgitta’s advice in this department was not to necessarily work for the nice guy who was enjoyable to work with, but rather find yourself a risk-taking boss. This type of boss is much less likely to be a victim of unconscious bias and much more likely to push you and take a chance on you. So, go find someone possibly a bit rough around the edges!

Don’t be afraid to ask for support:

Erica shared how her network helped her to overcome a gender pay gap. One day she realised that all the other general managers who happened to be male were getting paid 50% more than her.  She really struggled with the confidence to go and talk to her boss about it because she didn’t want them to think she was trouble or a money grabber. She said, “The entire team was men and I didn’t want to be just this bitchy woman who is asking for too much.” But then she looked to an internal support network of women who said they would back her up and that she had to do this because if she didn’t all women in the company would continue to suffer. This support helped her to see she wasn’t a money grabber and enabled her to speak up about this inequity, enacting positive change for the company.

Personal, internal and external networks are integral to leading a fulfilling, supported, successful life. As David Sole writes in 21st Century Networking, “We rely on relationships for support and help, to enable us to get things done.”

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