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Are you your sister’s keeper?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Tara Frank

I had the pleasure of speaking at the NAFE 2014 Leadership Summit. Of the many stimulating conversations we had throughout the day, the one that really stuck with me was whether and how women help each other succeed in the workplace.

We talked a great deal about mentors vs. sponsors, when to seek support and when to be sought, and how to ready yourself for the next level by being clear about what you want to do, why you want to do it and how you are uniquely skilled to contribute.

I found myself nodding my head through most of this ongoing dialogue. There were countless insightful comments made, and I agreed with most of what was shared. But this notion of whether women adequately support each other at work left me a bit restless. I still can’t quite shake it.

Related: "The 5 mistakes women make when communicating"

I don’t know about you, but most (if not all) of my breakthrough opportunities were thoughtfully orchestrated by leaders who stepped up to advocate for me. They weren’t all women, and the role of men as sponsors can't be underestimated. That said, as a female who is acutely aware of the unique complexities inherent in our climb, I feel strongly that it’s not only my responsibility to help other women thrive at work, it’s also my privilege.

Because Hallmark Cards Inc. is in the relationship business, it makes sense that we would enjoy a disproportionate number of women in leadership positions. This makes our culture very supportive for the most part, but I’m increasingly conscious of the role I must play in raising my own "sister’s keeper” high bar. How can I help women with an unusual spark of talent, intelligence and passion chart their course through what can seem like an unknowable maze of choices and opportunities? For bright, talented women, succeeding at work shouldn’t feel like a labyrinth. And if we want more balanced decision-making at the top, those of us who can help open doors should be more than happy to hang proverbial traffic signs on the walls when we can.

If you’re a female executive in a company that could use more women in senior positions, I hope you will take this as a personal challenge. I realize you can’t sponsor everyone, but I’m confident there is a woman in your organization who has incredible gifts to give, and just hasn’t "been found” by an advocate who can help maximize her potential. If you need help building a case for the benefits of more women in leadership positions, I encourage you to pick up The Female Vision by Sally Helgeson and Julie Johnson — a quick read that clearly explains the long-term advantage of the female approach to vision and strategy and outlines how that approach brings needed balance to male-dominated cultures.

On being "kept”

If you need a sponsor and want to know how to get "in position,"  consider the advice of the wonderful senior women from 3M, Cargill, Boston Scientific, Allianz Life Insurance Company and General Mills, who had this to say (paraphrased) during the NAFE executive panel:

  • Focus on consistently strong performance. Translation: Be excellent in all things, at all times.
  • Take full advantage of "springboard” moments. Recognize when a presentation, a project or a simple assignment can provide the treasured opportunity to demonstrate your leadership in profound ways to people who need to know you. Take no chances. Swing for the fences.
  • Know and represent yourself well. According to NAFE President Betty Spence, you should be able to convey your vision, your professional aspirations and your differentiated value in two minutes. If you can’t do that yet, congratulations — you are the lucky winner of a homework assignment.
  • Raise your hand. I added this one. Is there a special initiative under way? Employee resource group leadership position available? Business problem that needs to be solved, but hasn't been owned yet? The best way to reach the top is to lead your way there, before you’re even asked.

Some women have had negative experiences with other women leaders. One young professional at the conference asked why established women leaders are so threatened by emerging women leaders in the workplace. She went on to explain that she’s received more support from men than women and her experiences left her with a definite impression of the risks and benefits of reliance on one or the other.

I realize this dynamic still exists, but there are increasingly more women who are ready and willing to help others along, and the ones who aren’t should be seen as individuals who have other priorities, rather than symbols of systemic non-support. Believing other women don’t want to help you is more unhelpful than the unhelpful women themselves! This belief will isolate you, and prevent you from forming relationships with people who can nurture you, guide you and stand up for you when the time is right.

We need each other. Our businesses need us, too — and not just because "it’s the right thing to do.”

As vice president, multicultural strategy for Hallmark Cards Inc., Tara Jaye Frank is responsible for partnering across product development, marketing and retail to drive growth with an increasingly diverse consumer base. She was the youngest person in Hallmark’s history to be promoted into executive management and its first African American female vice president.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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