Why the Ol’ Girls’ Network Is the Most Important Sorority You’ll Ever Join
How This Writer Learned the Value of “One for All, All for One”
By Elizabeth Kaminsky
Sure, we’ve all had our experiences with the “Ol’ Boys’ Network.” But is there one for women? Do we honor each other, look out for each other, and cut each other breaks when it comes to business connections? Or do we just compete and say, “Every woman for herself?”
Whether you’re starting out, or a business veteran, how you use your networks can really help (or hinder) your success. In my 18-plus years in the business world, I have experienced it all, as part of big corporations and as a one-woman show. Here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned about the how and why women need to create networks of your own.
It pays to treat people with respect. Early in my career, I worked in the hospitality industry, where I found the value of networking and connections almost immediately. As a corporate trainer, I needed to make fast friends of the catering folks or my trainees would be miserable without their coffee and Danish. I also needed the technical staff on my side, lest they sabotage my slide projector and make me look stupid in front of hundreds of people.
What did I do? I used (and still do) the things my mother taught me when dealing with people: I watched, listened, asked questions, and, most of all, treated people with respect. “Please” and “thank you” still go a long way with the banquet server who is setting up your meeting. So many of my female colleagues still believe that, once they reach a certain level of responsibility, they’ve earned the right to order people around like servants. That strategy is a losing one, to be sure.
Get to know people outside your department. Large corporations are notoriously segmented. For instance, the accountants wouldn’t dare talk to the finance people, etc. The truth is, like it or not, we need others to get our own jobs done. When you are new to a corporation, take the time to get to know all the players on the scorecard. Join interdepartmental groups, like the Toastmasters or Volunteers in Action. These groups allow you to connect and build relationships with people throughout the organization. You never know when you’re going to need that last-minute information from engineering….
During the years I spent working for an electric utility, I forged friendships with four women who worked at various levels in different areas of the company. We banded together because it was such an “old boys” organization, and many of the benefits meant for “everyone” were only being used by the men. One such benefit was the company golf course. None of us knew how to play, but we learned, we laughed, and, “lo and behold,” we did a lot of business out there, too. In fact, our network became so strong, we knew (and leveraged) valuable information before most of “the boys” ever had a clue. Although most of us have moved on to other things, we still gather regularly, acting as professional and moral support for each other. I treasure our ties, past, present and future.
Be a mentor. We need to exhibit some real solidarity to help ourselves, our daughters, our nieces, our friends—all women—achieve their fullest potential. Too often, we are extra-critical of ourselves and we end up projecting that criticism onto the women with whom we work or do business, instead of encouraging them to learn and grow.
I wish I had a dime for all the times one supervisor told me I was just too young, too stupid and didn’t belong in this job. The real deal was that I was younger and better educated than she was, and she was afraid of losing the only job she had ever known. That experience taught me to guard against self-limiting behavior. Had that shortsighted supervisor prepared me for her job, she could have prepared herself to move on to bigger and better things.
Look for female role models. I have been fortunate to have three mentors in my life, each of whom taught me how to survive and thrive in the working world. I try to use what they taught me with the women in my life. From my college internship with a high-powered lobbyist, I learned to separate myself from my job. She took the time to show me how to be tough and not to take things personally. From a “ball of fire” human resources director, I learned to use my individual style to my advantage and not to be afraid to make decisions. From a seasoned investor-relations professional, I learned to lighten up and not take myself and the world around me too seriously. These fine women continue to be my lifelines, and I’m only too glad to return the favor.
So think of the women you come into contact with in your professional life as an international sisterhood. It’s probably the most important “sorority” any woman will ever join. If every woman took the time to share her wealth of experience with other women joining the ranks, what a powerful ol’ girls’ network that would be!