To read the introduction to our 'How Did She Get There?' study, please click here.
“Fellowship is as important as leadership” - Kari Daniels
During our conversations, one of the most inspiring patterns we observed was the long-lasting partnerships these women forged, partnerships that were instrumental to their growth and their success. What’s more, these women were discovering new and creative ways to collaborate and rise up together.
When we sat down with Leonie Foster, Customer and Digital Director at Selfridges, she shared a striking memory during her time at a major retailer early on in her career. Soon after she joined, she quickly became part of a network of highly capable senior women who supported one another. She explains “we knew each other well and were each other’s support… we would operate by supporting each other’s position.” She went on to detail how this would work. When one of them was particularly good at board papers, they would lend their support to the group, while another who excelled at presenting would coach the others. Essentially they all leaned on one another’s strengths and rose together ‘in partnership’.
The beauty of this experience was that these women were creating a culture of mutuality so rarely seen in organisations whose order of the day is usually to promote individuality. Moreover, the fact that they had risen together didn’t detract from their sense of personal achievement. They saw their collaboration as a strength.
These partnerships focused on a purpose and a mission, as opposed to any notion of personal success. One participant of the survey comments, “I am not focused on my own success; I care about the causes I work for. I can't achieve any real improvement in the world by myself. Therefore, with friends, colleagues, mentees, employees, my team, my own leaders, partners, and networks – all the people I interact with, I want to empower them to be the best they can be, and lift them up so we can make a difference together.”
The partnerships these women developed were long-lasting: “When I reflect back on the things that have helped me and the journey as a woman I think the relationships were key. I always got on well with men but with women, there was a sisterhood. Many of the women I worked with or who were the wives of my colleagues I’m still close friends with.” (Keshini Jayawardena) Leonie says, “my advice is to build your network and do it by being kind to people and helping people… You should help, challenge and support along the way. When I left the organisation, all the women were amazing in their support of me, but the men were less so – women reciprocate. I had given a lot and I got it back but not in a transactional way.”
Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, CEO, writer and keynote speaker, explains that through history, women have historically had less, e.g. less institutional power, and as a result, have had to become very good at building alliances and collaborating. Those who have less in the world, recognise that they will get nowhere without alliances. One builds alliances to help others. Collaboration is all about building mutual trust, generosity and reciprocity with others. Margaret adds that as the world now moves from a competitive mindset to a collaborative mindset, these skills women have developed are now, in fact, a huge professional advantage. Which is why women are able to do a lot, even if they have less e.g. less capital, less institutional power, etc.68
We conducted a survey alongside our interviews. 128 women participated in our survey. The questions in the survey were designed to test several hunches and patterns we’d noticed from the interviews, to see if similar patterns emerged from a broader group of women. Women self-selected for the survey – they were asked to complete it if they felt they had been successful without compromising who they were or without trying to be more like the men around them.
We asked all participants the following question: “When you think of your career to date – considering the different parts to your journey and the high and the lows – can you share one story that summarises what has helped you be successful? Note: As this is probably the most important part of the survey, we appreciate you providing a detailed answer.”
It was fascinating how the responses from these 128 participants who had self-selected to take the survey, so closely mirrored the responses from the women we interviewed.
The biggest theme to emerge by far was the support of others, whether that be via their network, great managers and leaders, or an inspiring role model/mentor or sponsor. Here are a few snippets:
- “I was lucky enough to receive specific and tailored support from someone who, as well as being a role model, advised and challenged me. She opened doors and made sure my career and professional well-being were prioritised alongside an extremely hectic work schedule. I have since sought out mentors at different points in my career and now mentor women embarking on their careers in senior roles.”
- "I've found that new opportunities often come through people who know me well and have referred me to a role/person. This has been based on their view of my potential and their view of me being a capable, adaptable person. People seeing potential and being willing to give me a chance to deliver on/above their expectations has allowed me to take on broad roles, across industry. Equally, I have always taken risks and not been afraid to try new things.”
- "...Being open to doing something so far out of my comfort zone, and knowing you have support if you need it, has given me the greatest learning opportunity and ability to shine.”
- "I have been lucky to find strong female role models/mentors along the way, who have believed in me and taken a chance on me.”
Other strong themes that emerged were:
Additional themes were resilience, courage, curiosity, empathy, asking for help, gratitude, and self-awareness.
In addition to partnerships, many women highlighted the importance of mentorship during their journey. The majority of women expressed gratitude to role models and mentors that shaped their lives. These mentors were both men and women. Janine Osborn recalls “the most pivotal relationship was with Danny… She backed me and pushed me forwards to take opportunities… I often think I’ve just been lucky, and there is an element to that, but I have also underestimated myself. Danny helped me see that.”
These women were not afraid to ask for and to accept help along the way: “I’ve always managed to find really good mentors. And I’ve always worked really hard for good people who gave me the opportunity to succeed – I think it’s important to always ask for help. It's also extremely important to offer it too if you’re able to do so.” (Tracey Woodward)
They were very keen to ‘pay it forward’ and mentor others. Claire Camara recalls, “my mentor taught me the importance of relationships. Her mantra was ‘pay it forward’. Wherever she is, she will find an opportunity to share her success… I also wanted to try to support young people and contribute through my work with them and my coaching.”
Maria-Pia De Caro’s mentor called her every single month for 20 years. She would advise her on how to take the next steps or “she would just listen to me,” and intuitively replay back what she heard in Maria’s voice. Her mentor only ever asked Maria to do one thing in return: “you need to do the same to others that I’m doing with you.” And since then, Maria has mentored hundreds of people.
Many took their role as a mentor incredibly seriously: “I would never allow somebody whom I mentor to fail. I spend a significant portion of my day coaching peers and those at the beginning of their careers and am committed to doing so because there's karma in this world.” (Tanisha Carino) “Mentoring a person means more to me than an appliance that we produce… Creating a multiplier effect of mentoring someone and having them mentor 14 more.” (Pamela Klyn)
The women we spoke to showed tremendous gratitude for those who supported them on their journey. They acknowledged the mentors and role models who enabled them to rise. They were not afraid to ask for help and to learn from others. They forged partnerships that lasted a lifetime. And they paid it forward by mentoring the next generation of leaders. In our Solutions section, we’ll share how to embed the concept of partnership across an entire organisation. We’ll explore the difference between a culture of partnership versus. dominance and we’ll discuss how partnerships can be amazingly creative driving forces that extend beyond the confines of an organisation to customers, communities and even competitors.
How can organisations learn from these insights and enable more women to thrive? Download the paper to explore several powerful and actionable recommendations that we put forward.
68 Margaret Heffernan: 3 TED Talks, Research & Books–Making A New Case for Business Diversity, The Female Red Zone Podcast with Maribeth Kuzmeski