Women get better at forming networks

Women get better at forming networks

Successful female executives used to be seen as loners who shunned helping other women and dutifully stuck to entrenched rules to succeed. No one would make that charge today. A women’s network has emerged in the corporate world that is working to counter the old boy’s club. Its members, who include a fresh crop of female executives as well as corporate veterans, are helping one another advance and succeed—and on their own terms.

The “queen bee syndrome"—the belief that ambitious women strive for the most powerful position in the workplace while excluding all rivals—is outdated, executives say. Equally outdated is the notion that women can’t have both powerful jobs and fulfilling personal lives.

“Don’t believe for a minute that women don’t help other women," said Angela Braly, 46 years old, who became president and CEO of WellPoint, the largest health insurer in the US, earlier this year. At director and company meetings, she is never the sole woman in the room, she said. One-third of the company’s directors, 50% of its managers and 70% of its employees are female. She added that many encouraged her when she got the top job and were anxious for her to show strength.

She and five other female executives who participated in a recent Wall Street Journal panel discussion agreed that more women are headed for C-level offices. They credit the track record of advancing women, women’s growing confidence in their abilities and the knowledge that if they don’t fit in one job, they can move elsewhere.

Because the demand across industries for female talent is strong, and because of the experience women have gained climbing the ranks, they are beginning to set their own rules. They seek work styles that make it possible to balance careers and families.

The upshot: “It worked—and my organization loved it," said Healey. After her boss became CEO of Evian, he tried to recruit her to work for him again.

We “need to give permission to others to be different from us—and believe they can succeed," said Michele Coleman Mayes, senior vice-president and chief legal officer of Allstate. But that doesn’t mean women should stop listening to criticism, she says. She once told a male boss she wanted to be a general counsel. When he told her she didn’t have the right skills, she was crushed. Instead of arguing with him, however, she mulled over his criticism and admitted he was right. A few months later, her boss recruited her to follow him to Colgate-Palmolive, where he promised to help her learn what she needed to become general counsel.

How much should successful female executives do to help other women? Is mentoring enough or should they also actively recruit more women to boardrooms and executive suites?

Mary Sammons, chairman, president and CEO of Rite Aid, notes that for years men have used informal networks to help one another get jobs and board seats. So, after turning around Rite Aid and becoming its top leader, she intentionally recruited a woman to the board. She also has “come to the conclusion that it is good to get more women together" and involved on work teams and at company meetings. That helps ensure “that they’re really heard when they bring things up," she says.

To do that, women need to seek mentors—something they often don’t do enough. “One of the mistakes I made earlier in my career was not building those relationships" with the people who say when positions are being filled, ‘Well, what about her for that,’" said Billie Williamson, director of flexibility and gender equity at Ernst & Young Llp.

But mentoring is a two-way street, said Sheryl Sandberg, vice-president, global online sales and operations, at Google. She once took a talented female employee, who was pregnant, to lunch to encourage her to keep advancing. “I told her how much we didn’t want to lose her, how I wanted everything to work out for her—and I thought I was being a great mentor," Sandberg recalled.

Instead of thanking her, the employee told her to stop sending her emails at 11.30pm. “She was saying, ‘If you’re trying to set the right example, stop doing that or, at least, write that you don’t expect an answer by 6am,’" said Sandberg. She complied.

(Write to wsj@livemint.com)