Women’s networks: what works, what doesn’t?

Women’s networks: what works, what doesn’t?

Earlier this week I went along to a discussion called Networked Women,  hosted at Intellect (the trade body for the UK’s technology industry) by Tracey Carr and Jan Peters. Unlike some of the events I’ve covered before,  where there was a lot of standing around and no particular focus,  this meeting was well organised and took as its theme the value and benefits of women’s corporate/in-house networks: have they succeeded or failed? And what is best practice – and,  more importantly,  what isn’t?

The first speaker was Eileen Brown,  the founder of a collective called Connecting Women in Technology (and here’s a link to Eileen’s blog),  which has members from such IT giants as Microsoft, Cisco, Intel Dell, HP and IBM.  They take it in turns to organise two events per year,  hosted by one of the member firms,  as a way for the women to network outside their own company and across different business and functional sectors.

CwiT has been running events for the last three years,  and Eileen shared their following top three learnings with us:

  • Women want mentors and advice from women in similar roles and at similar levels – so try to make sure that you have a good mixture at your events.
  • Get senior people (ideally men) to come and speak at your events,  particularly men who manage women – they add value and credibility to the subject in hand
  • Allow time for post-event networking and chat,  as well as a mid-event coffee break,  in case anybody has to leave promptly at the end – this way they won’t miss out on the chance to make new connections.
(c) We Are The City

Next on was Vanessa Vallely,  who,  in addition to a very impressive sounding day job in finance,  is the co-founder of the Network of Networks,  a collective of corporate/FTSE companies who come together from time to time to discuss best practices in areas such as networking and diversity.  Vanessa is also the creator of information portal We Are The City,  which is aimed at women in the City (of London) who want information on career and lifestyle issues.  Vanessa is the absolute Queen of collaborating with other people and other networks on events  and she suggested that SUCCESS for women’s corporate networks is dependent upon:

  • Getting senior sponsorship for your network – from a senior leader who is passionate, involved and active.
  • Creating a really strong business case for your network,  with proper objectives, and resources.
  • And while you’re at it – ask for a budget!
  • Thinking about your communications – use lots of channels.  And say to your members: here we are,  what do you want us to do?
  • Organising a range of diverse events,  for all levels of women in the organisation, with different role models and which take place at different times of the day

In order to avoid FAILURE,  Vanessa recommends:

  • Not working as a silo – get lots of involvement,  from many different champions
  • Remembering that the network is more than the individuals who run it
  • Keeping it simple
  • Involving men,  by ensuring that your events are always cross-gender and open to all.

(She reminded us at this point that it can be daunting for a man to walk into a roomful of women at one of these events – which can also serve the dual purpose of providing said bloke with an insight of what it can feel like to be a woman in the workplace,  perhaps walking into a roomful of men.)

A lot of real life networking tends to focus in on events,  so Vanessa’s top tips for anyone wanting to create a successful and vibrant event are as follows:

  • Make it exciting!
  • Get membership participation
  • Canvas feedback – how was it for you,  what could we do better?
  • Rotate the organising team and the sponsors (keep it fresh, in other words)
  • Have a good mix of what she dubbed both “hard” (business related) and “soft” (lifestyle) events.

And she closed by reminding us to be wary that a network’s reputation takes a while to build,  to remember that you will need a budget of some sort,  even if it’s only tiny and that you can’t be all things to everyone – there will always be some people who just didn’t enjoy whatever it was that you’ve organised.

That’s life – and it’s actually a useful life lesson, too.

All very helpful stuff,  and a reminder that Real World events are a very useful (and fun – cheese! Wine!)  add-on to the social networking piece about which I wrote on here last month.

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