Tapping into women networks to reach the top

Forum offers peer guidance for women closing in on CEO positions

As a woman making her way to the top in the banking industry, Karen Leggett said she’s been lucky enough not to have ever encountered discrimination on the basis of gender.

Nevertheless, she knows there are other, more subtle factors holding back women with potential to reach the top.

For one, women tend to be shy in asserting and embracing their ambition, said Leggett, senior vice-president of client acquisition at RBC Financial Group. Or they are not deliberate enough in cultivating a network. Or they’re not as savvy as they need to be in polishing their own personal brand.

Those are some of the things she mulled over, as she sat among a group of 25 successful business women to share thoughts on leadership. This exclusive, week-long gathering in Toronto last month was part of the Judy Project, a leadership forum developed through the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Judy Elder, the namesake of the project, was a senior executive at Microsoft Canada when she died in 2002, at age 47. Moved by Elder’s passion in inspiring women to become great organizational leaders, Colleen Moorehead, president and CEO of E-Trade Canada, decided to organize this forum, now in its third year.

The forum is reserved for women with the potential to become CEO at their organizations in five to eight years. The idea was to create an environment of full trust, where women of equal standing can share stories of courage and reflect on each other’s experiences and paths to leadership, said Moorehead. The women have to be nominated by their CEOs to join the forum.

“One of the vulnerabilities we talked about was the willingness to assert our ambitions. It’s critical to celebrate your ambition, and to feel comfortable talking about it,” she said.

Beyond the week-long meeting, the women commit to continue meeting every month in smaller groups of six, eight or 10. These in effect become each participant’s “personal advisory board.” The term refers to the commitment each woman in the group makes to take an interest in the advancement of each other, much like the interest a board of directors takes in an organization’s success.

The personal advisory board is made up of women who “spent a week together and want to continue a dialogue on what was discussed during the week,” said Moorehead. These women already know “what your goals are, what the dilemmas are that are confronting you and give you advice.”

Although not part of the Judy Project forum, Sylvia Chrominska, Scotiabank’s executive vice-president of HR, knows the value of turning to other women to give, and ask for, guidance and advice on how to move ahead in the corporate world.

She learned of its value quite late in life, in fact. Private and self-reliant by nature, Chrominska said for much of her career, she paid little attention to developing networks.

“I think because of that, there were times I felt very different, very alone. I didn’t feel I had anywhere to go to let my hair down.”

What she did have was a strong work ethic, which drove her to do the very best at any job, eventually making her Scotiabank’s first female executive. Chrominska is aware that there are still systemic barriers a woman runs into on her way to success. Among them are a lack of female role models, an enduring level of discomfort some people still have about following a female leader, and an uneven distribution of housework and care-giving duties.

Despite having two great mentors, both men, in her career, Chrominska for many years didn’t “feel that much of a responsibility to other women. I didn’t feel at all inclined to help pave the way for others,” she said.

“But I suddenly realized that I had progressed to a certain point where I myself was perceived as a role model, and I had the ability to influence the way for others. That’s when I began to take my responsibilities to others quite seriously.”

With that realization, Chrominska devoted time into building leadership development programs for women. One is called, Strive for Success, an international network that uses webcast sessions to link up women from different countries to talk openly about issues.

She also established the Sylvia D. Chrominska Award at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont. It awards young women who have demonstrated academic excellence and a financial need with funding for two years to pursue an Honours Business Administration degree.

For such activities, Chrominska is receiving a Woman of Distinction Award for Corporate Leadership at the end of the month. Sponsored by the YWCA Toronto, the award honours the contributions women make to the life of the city, in particular their commitment to women and girls.

As Leggett reflected on the experiences articulated in the Judy Project forum, she decided that she needed to take steps on a couple of points. One is to be more deliberate with her networking; up to now, she has just let the network evolve. “That’s what I started doing last weekend, which was sitting down and listing my network. It’s learning how to make connections with certain people, and on what basis you’re going to do that,” said Leggett.

“And I have to think about how am I going to return the value as well. So that it’s not just (people) helping me; it’s also about how I can help them.”

Latest stories