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How To Form an Internal Women's Network

By Kaamna Dhawan

Depending on the day, the experience of starting an internal women’s network in a corporate environment vacillates between a root canal and time at the spa. Having recently started such an organization, I can highlight five critical tips for the successful launch of an internal affinity group.

Make it about the business. Professional women do not want to sign up for, nor do they want to be perceived as having a need, for a support group. While balancing a career and family is a condition that women will be learning to master decades from now, try to expand the focus of your organization to all topics related to effective work practices. Like any business unit in a company, internal networks must articulate their role in maintaining the company’s competitive advantage. By creating a forum in which women can sharpen their business acumen, you achieve the dual benefit of increasing employee productivity as well as demonstrating to women that the company is investing in their growth. Given the anticipated shortage of labor, corporations do not take attrition lightly. People who believe that their company cares about their personal and professional development are less likely to look for those things elsewhere.

Find an executive champion. Having a visible executive sponsor is an important signal about the viability of the organization. Companies pay executives well for their time. If an executive considers this initiative a worthwhile use of his or her time and energy, you automatically have strong corporate endorsement for your cause. In addition, the sponsor can help you identify real business needs that your organization can help tackle. Further, your executive sponsor can approach his or her peers on behalf of the group to increase executive support for events. Remember though, when asking for involvement, always be prepared to articulate why your existence is good for the business.

It’s not competition, it’s cooperation. It’s not about being better than men. It’s about being better women. It’s time to stop pretending that we are not different, and to celebrate that we are, and to appreciate that men and women have a different set of skills they bring to the table. Women and men have unique sets of development areas too. In order to truly add value, it is important that your organization is realistic about women’s relative strengths and weaknesses and works proactively to improve performance. Enlist men in that development process. Often, the few things that high potential women need to be successful are the things they need to learn from men.

Engage your early adopters. For various reasons, women may be reluctant to actively participate until they are fully convinced of the organization’s value. In the mean time, seek to share the burden of building momentum. Through the organization of lightweight activities (brownbag lunches, coffee hours, etc.), identify the early adopters in your population. These are the handfuls who participate in activities before the mass arrives. Enlist the early adopters to participate in, evangelize, or even run events. Teach early adopters to identify their own groups of early adopters. Employ this strategy, one member at a time, until you have more active participants than passive ones.

Think big, start small. Your ultimate aim may be to change the company culture, or even the national culture, but progress occurs slowly and sometimes, inconspicuously. It is important to start small, and to celebrate your wins, no matter how insignificant they may seem relative to your overall goals. Remember that you are providing a valuable service to your company. Endless research has propagated the strategic benefits of internal networks for companies. Congratulate yourself for taking the initiative.

Kaamna Dhawanis the HR Business Partner