By Jeanne Porter King, PH.D.
Women need each other to build bridges to our success. Without these bridges, too many of us just fall through the cracks.
One of the core principles I have come to embrace for cultivating women’s leadership in organizations and institutions is to help each of us develop and cultivate the network of people who provide support, encouragement, mutual resources, and feedback to each of us. Back in my early days of leadership training and coaching, when women complained of being left out of the informal networks that we used to call the “old-boys’ club” I would tell those women to go build their own network.
As soon as some women heard the word network, they thought of networking as the schmoozing and glad-handing they’d come to see as superficial and inauthentic. For some people, the very thought of networking induced anxiety.
I admonished, instead of focusing on networking as an activity, reframe their focus to building their network of connections that support them and their career goals. I likened the process of building that network to building an infrastructure of support that undergirds a successful leader’s influence.
Typically, an infrastructure to a city for instance, consists of the physical structures such as buildings and bridges, road and power grids that provide the underlying support to a city or town. In a similar away, to be a successful influencer and leader, each of us needs to build an infrastructure of social support. Each of us must be intentional about building this network and actually make building the network of support a part of our daily career activities.
Recently I was thinking back to my college days and realized the seeds for building a network of support started right there.
The Focus Connection
I studied engineering at The Ohio State University, the largest university on one campus at the time. There I met Dean Minnie McGee. She led the Minority Engineering Program and created programs that provided mentoring and social support for engineering students of color. Most of us students of color were first generation college students. These programs have since grown to include all first-generation college students. As a former college faculty member, I can attest to the role these services play in supporting young people who’ve not otherwise had role models for college success.
Dean McGee was committed to the success of young African-Americans in the engineering programs—especially those of us in our pre-engineering foundational classes. It was these foundational classes that could make or break a student before she even entered into the major! Dean McGee encouraged us for sure with her bright and positive disposition, but she also created systems of support that helped us stay plugged in and not drop out of these rigorous programs. She used her power to empower us.
I remember spending time in Dean McGee’s office as she gave tips ranging from working with tutors to making sure we sought out our professors during their office hours to help us work through homework problems. In retrospect, I now realize she was coaching us to be influencers of our own success. My first year, I spent countless hours in the Black Undergraduate Engineering Council (BUEC) office that she created as a space for us to study and hang out. There I got to network with other black engineering students. I was fortunate to maintain high grades and Dean McGee helped to find scholarship funds for me that continued throughout my academic stint at OSU.
Dean McGee literally shepherded so many off us through Ohio State’s engineering programs to graduation. Dean McGee created an infrastructure of services and people who supported me and other students in our academic pursuit. Without the support of Dean McGee’s program, we could have gotten lost or discouraged. Dean McGee helped us focus.
The Faith Connection
For me the church was also a critical part of my infrastructure of support. People of faith fueled my belief that I could succeed. I recall building one of those connections during Spring quarter of my first year.
I was coming down the steps of one of the buildings on West Campus where OSU administrators at the time housed all classes for first year students. I ran into a woman who appeared to be my age sitting on the steps intently studying some reading material. And quite frankly, even though I was part of a study group with other African Americans, I was always elated to run into other African-American women outside of the BUEC office. I think this particular young woman was poring over the scheduling book for Fall classes. We struck up a conversation and in getting to know each other, found out we were both raised in the same church tradition. We connected on the spot! I was elated. I don’t recall whether we exchanged numbers but shortly after that perhaps a few days later, I ran into her again on a different part of West campus.
I cheerfully sidled up to her and spoke. She was friendly but not as effusive as I. I continued to talk while she gave me a look as if to say, “Do I know you?” I tried to remind her that we had just met a few days before. Still she gave no response. Well you can imagine my disappointment, thinking I had found a friend, only to learn I had misjudged this young woman.
She must have seen the confusion or disappointment on my face and realize she and I had a miscommunication. She remarked, “Oh, you must have met my twin sister Carol. I’m Carla!” Now I’m sure you can imagine my even bigger surprise to learn Carla and Carol Smith were identical twins. And out of those two encounters was birthed a friendship between a set of twins and me that helped us navigate life as college students and young adults. I ended up joining their church. In between classes or on the weekends, we hung out. We sang in the choir and got involved in the local young people’s organization affiliated with that church. This church became a safe haven, where older women prayed with me. When the program got too difficult, and I wanted to drop out, these women encouraged me to continue forward.
After graduation, it was in this same church that I experienced some of my first forays into leadership as a young adult leader and ultimately as a district and state young people’s organization leader. Some of my earliest lessons on leading in a predominantly male culture came from the church! Though most black Pentecostal churches are majority female, the leadership of the local and denominational leadership ranks, at the time, were predominately male, and the lessons I learned on navigating that culture were formative for my corporate work and ultimately my consulting work in diversity and inclusion!
The Female Connection
By the time I entered my major, Industrial and Systems Engineering, I had pretty much the same students in my classes. We took the required higher-level engineering courses together. The major was overwhelmingly male with a handful of us women. If I am recalling correctly, I was one of only two African American females in my classes, and there were no African American males. There were slightly more European American females. I don’t believe we ever intentionally set out to create a female support structure to counter the male domination of our classes. Instead a group of us young women gravitated toward each other and became collaborators—we formed our own study group, and we chose to work on group projects together. Cindy, Cindy, Laurie, Amie. Eventually Jennifer joined us. Then Doris, who, as I recall it, was the only one of us dating seriously, brought her boyfriend Dan along. And there we had a group that transcended race and gender, focused on providing support to succeed in a rigorous engineering program.
For two years, we worked together. I remember many times trekking off campus to one of the Cindy’s house which she shared with two other roommates. We used the large living room in her house as our study headquarters. I can still see our papers and books strewn across the coffee table as we huddled over homework assignments or group projects. Whatever task we were assigned, each of us was expected to hold up our individual responsibility to the team. We became friends and collaborators. We sat together in class and commiserated over lectures that were confusing. This network was mutually supporting and the boundaries flexible as our group continued to grow and expand. Contrary to the majority white male student groups in our major, our group was diverse and inclusive.
Thank you for going with me down memory lane. But there is a point to this trip. Connecting with others for support is vital to your success at every stage of your career and life! No one does it alone or goes it alone and succeeds. So, there are three things I want you to consider as you become more intentional in building your infrastructure of support.
- Look to role models. Dean McGee was mine. There are women and men who already are where you want to go. These role models may not look like you, in terms of their race and gender. But note the character that undergirds their success and authentic leadership. Reach out to them for mentoring. Offer to help them with a project. Listen and learn from them. As you grow in leadership, then you become a role model and share.
- Be inspired. Life and the rigors of work and career can knock each of us down and cause us to get discouraged. You need a source of inspiration in your infrastructure of support that buoys you up in down times, and that connects you to a higher purpose for all that you do. It is only leading on purpose for a purpose that will sustain your leadership across your whole life.
- Support each other. My fellow female engineering students and the twins from my church were among my strongest supporters–as I was also theirs. In workshops that I now run for existing and emerging women leaders, inevitably someone will tell a story about a senior woman who won’t support other women. That cannot be the norm. We must support each other. You can support other up-and-coming women by becoming a mentor to a new colleague. Invite a colleague to coffee or lunch. Support each other in meetings. And, by all means, speak up when one of us is being disparaged.
Today my network of support is vast and diverse—made up of women and men from all walks of life and at various junctures in their own leadership success. And I am elated to say that I am a critical part of other people’s infrastructure of support-especially younger women coming along. Let me close with a few quotes on building your network from my book, That’s What She Said! 366 Leadership Quotes by Women! (Yes, I’m shamelessly plugging my book of quotes. If I don’t who will? And if I don’t let you know how excited I am about it, then who will inspire you to get it, use it and share it?)
“It’s time to get focused on what really matters. Find women that are different from you and figure out the things you have in common. We have a whole generation of girls who are looking at us to see how we treat each other. Let’s show them what the power of being a woman really looks like. Let’s open our arm to each other, and to them. ~Chelsea Handler (#TWSSLeadershipQuote-345)
Think About It:
Who are the women (and men) who are a part of your infrastructure of support? How intentional are you in connecting with them? Is your network of support mutually beneficial? What is one thing you can do today to strengthen your infrastructure of support?