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The Influential Power of Mentoring and Networking to Open Doors and Break Barriers

By: Lisa Heidman, LL. B.

In early October 2010, Forbes Magazine released their “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list. Within it, was a wealth of inspiring Women of Influence with global backgrounds in business, media and politics. What’s particularly interesting, and not well known, is that as the Forbes team researched, compiled and dug deep into the profiles of these successful women leaders, they quickly stumbled upon, connection after connection between these extraordinary, and extraordinarily networked, influential women.

What is further revealed, when studying these women’s  backgrounds, is that several of these top Senior Executive leaders had at one time either worked together or for each other. Many had either  mentored or were directly mentored by each other. Several shared mentors, or business and political advisors, both men and women, that opened incredible doors and opportunities while providing strategic business guidance and support. Several provided significant platforms to support and elevate another women’s success on the list. Many were within, or well known within, each other’s influential business, social or political networks.

Those in the media field like Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, provided their business and media platforms to highlight other women. Vera Wang directly benefitted from both of these media platforms as she was growing her business. Both Rachael Ray, talk show host, and personal finance guru, Suze Orman also owe a significant part of their business success to Oprah Winfrey’s media platform and direct sponsorship. Ursula Burns, Xerox’s Chief Executive Officer who rose to Xerox’s CEO role in 2009, assumed the chairmanship of Xerox from her mentor, female business icon Anne Mulcahy. Others, like Michelle Obama have directly impacted the way women like Irene Rosenfeld, Chief Executive Officer of Kraft Foods and Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, run their companies. Coincidence? Forbes Woman Magazine thinks not. “Power begets power, and with women, the effect can be viral. The spheres of influence of power women intersect in incredible and inspiring ways.”

Without question, the influential power of mentoring and networking to open doors for women, to create platforms for senior executive and board opportunities, and to break business barriers for women, has been key to the business and financial success of many extraordinarily successful senior executive women. Annette Verschuren, President of the Home Depot Canada and Asia, currently leading a team of 30,000 associates and responsible for the sales and operations of more than 180 stores in Canada and Asia combined, has spoken often and publicly about the importance of mentoring up-and-coming leaders. As a prime example, Annette has shared her own story of how Canadian icon lawyer Purdy Crawford, recognized her own abilities very early on, opening up critical career doors, while providing guidance and support throughout her career. Annette’s career path has been on an upward trajectory ever since, shattering glass ceilings along the way.

Sharon Allen, Chairman of the Board of Deloitte LLP, an organization with nearly $11 billion in annual revenues, credits the mentors she’s had in her career with helping her enter the small club of high-ranking women executives. “I can’t stress enough how important mentoring is to achieving success in one’s career” notes Ms. Allen. A key mentor for Ms. Allen was the Managing Partner of Deloitte’s Boise Idaho office where she worked early on in her career. “He would give me a little bit of additional  confidence by standing by me and giving me the nudge to assure me I was doing the right thing. As I developed in my career and moved along up the ladder, I established new connections with people I felt were looking out for me.”

What is known to all successful Senior Executive Women, is the influential impact of a mentor and their power to teach, train and open doors and possibilities. I would never have become, excelled or  survived, as a US Mergers & Acquisition attorney had it not been for the career boot camp training experience provided, and leadership opportunities offered, by one of my early mentors, Carol Hansell, a Senior Partner at the law firm, then known as Davies, Ward & Beck.

Ms. Hansell was one of the most driven people I have ever worked for, and ultimately one of the most supportive. She provided opportunities very early on for me to shine in front of senior firm clients, and critically taught me how to hold my own, within a senior male dominated M&A culture, and how to  positively be recognized within it, for what I uniquely brought to the table. She taught me how to stand up to demanding Partners – including herself. She gave me the confidence, hard earned, but then firmly established, that I was later able to draw upon, time and time again in my career: the tenacious drive forward, the exceptional commitment to deliver, and the inherent ability to stand up for oneself, one’s clients, and one’s own professional ethics and principles. I am incredibly grateful for the early example she provided and the lessons taught.

Like many Senior Executive Women, many of the business opportunities provided early on in my career, I owe to seasoned and very senior male mentors and advisors that provided me essential exposure to sophisticated business networks and complex business deals and negotiations far beyond my years. Often 20 or 30 years my senior, they weren’t in the least bit threatened by my tenacity, enthusiasm or drive – in fact they welcomed it, and the work ethic, to run their M&A deals that came with it.

My first Board appointment, at the age of 30, came through the direct advocacy and support of Ken Rossano, Chair of the Board, of The New England-Canada Business Council, a Not-For-Profit organization dedicated to advancing the  understanding of business, political and cultural issues between Canada and the United States. A high profile CEO and Senior Executive roundtable for Financial Services and Gas & Energy companies, I was a good 20 years younger than all of my peers on the Board, which included the heads of Bank of Boston, Fidelity and Duke Energy to name a few.

With Ken Rossano’s support, I was not only elected to the Board of Directors, but served for 3 fiscal years as one of its 5 Executive Officers, while also serving on the Board of its sister organization, The Maple Leaf Foundation. I would never have had these Board opportunities were it not for Rossano’s active lobbying on my behalf, his committed belief in my abilities, and the value he saw I could add to these organizations from a legal, business and governance standpoint.

The impact of a broad and influential network of senior business relationships, including seasoned Senior Executive leaders who can serve as your advocate for Senior Executive and Board  opportunities, has been well documented. It is most particularly essential, when it comes to Senior Executive Women landing both Public and Private Company and Not-for-Profit Board appointments. Indeed, the pool of Senior Executive talent considered for the majority of Board appointments in both Canada and the US, is still derived from these close knitted and connected business networks. If women are going to continue to break the barriers at both the Senior Executive and Board tables, there is no question they must also seek to develop meaningful senior mentoring relationships and to critically continue to develop their own extensive business and political networks.

The value and importance of developing mentoring relationships early on in one’s career is critical, but ideally these relationships continue to develop throughout one’s professional career. As my own career has developed, many of my mentors now, are also professional peers and colleagues, each of us sharing best practices, experiences and occasional political survival skills. We support, and continue to introduce, connect and open doors to invaluable relationships and business opportunities to each other. Each of us, now acting as a growing “Board of Directors” for each others’ own professional careers.

In the last 5+ years, my role as a Senior Executive Search Partner and Strategic Consultant has provided me exposure to even more  incredibly talented CEO, Board Members and Senior Executives. Needless to say, this network quickly and continues to develop and multiply  exponentially on both sides of the border. It was a natural next step to join with Carolyn Lawrence, CEO of Women of Influence, to work together  to leverage these relationships and provide a forum for this group of Senior Executive Women to join together, share best practices and to  facilitate a venue and platform to further expand their own business networks.

This lead to Carolyn Lawrence and I developing the Women of Influence Senior Executive Dinner Series, an evening, and by invitation only working dinner, celebrating a group of outstanding and influential women, each recognized for their significant contributions in both the public and private sector at the CEO, Board and Senior Executive level. The purpose of the evening was to provide an intimate forum for these leaders to share their invaluable insights, essential CEO survival tools, and to  foster peer-to-peer networking at the CEO and Board level.

Key Senior Women Executive Leaders from every industry – financial, professional and legal services, retail and consumer goods, media, technology, health care and the Not-For-Profit sector attended, all sharing their interest in, and dedication to, elevating women leaders in business globally. The Toronto Women of Influence Senior Executive Dinner Series has been so  successful that Women of Influence is now expanding these Senior Executive Women Dinner events in New York, Chicago and Boston in  2011/2012.

The recognized importance of mentoring and developing Senior Executive Women networks is growing North America wide. Recently, I had the pleasure to attend Manulife Financial’s inaugural “Reflections: A Celebration of Women Mentoring Women” in Toronto, an  evening celebrating 160 women, from a variety of industry sectors, and the relationships they had formed with a woman that they had each  influenced and mentored. The event was the brain child of Nicole Boivin, Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Communications, Canada at Manulife Financial, a leading Canadian-based Financial Services Group, serving millions of clients in 22 countries and territories worldwide.

The objective behind the Reflections – Women Mentoring Women event was to promote, honour and recognize the special professional relationships that have shaped each of us, and facilitated the way to our own successful careers. Ms. Boivin elaborates, “I have been fortunate and well  surrounded in my professional life by both men and women who have been generous with their feedback, guidance, insight and support.  Mentoring at Manulife, is often informal but the results of establishing special trusting relationships that help move your career forward, is  tangible and very real – particularly at the Senior Executive level.”

“There are plenty of examples, Boivin continues, “where the influence of  mentoring has played out in our organization, in Canada and globally, for both men and women. I often see this informal grooming as an integral  part of the management and development of key talent rising through the ranks. As a Senior Executive woman, this support, guidance and  attention has, without a doubt, shaped who I am today and the professional opportunities for advancement I have been encouraged to pursue. It  has also inspired me to pay it forward to those future leaders coming up in our ranks.” If the energy and enthusiasm in the room that evening was  any sign, Ms. Boivin’s efforts at paying it forward, meaningfully resonated for all attendees.

The impact of formal and informal networking and  mentoring programs within companies has been critically essential to increasing the number of promotions of women into Senior Executive and  Board roles globally. Mentoring programs and networking forums allow wisdom to get passed down in the organization and create a platform for  more experienced people to help up-and-coming talent manage their careers, navigate organizational politics and be considered for senior  executive opportunities.

LoyaltyOne, operators of the AIR MILES Reward Program and numerous loyalty, strategy, marketing and analytics  businesses, has recently been recognized for their revitalized focus on employee engagement, including once again being awarded placement on  Aon Hewitt’s 50 Best Employers in Canada list. Key to LoyaltyOne’s success has been the Company’s programs with respect to learning and  development, recognition and innovative human resources practices, which has included developing “LoyaltyOne’s Women’s Leadership  Initiative” with the goals of promoting an exchange of ideas and experiences; providing networking opportunities; offering educational programs  to enhance the growth of women as leaders, while making a positive contribution to the next generation of all leaders at the Company.

Sofia  Theodorou Locke, Vice President, Human Resources at LoyaltyOne believes that these mentoring programs and networking forums are powerful  and vitally needed to support women in realizing their career goals and further, are essential to driving LoyaltyOne’s organizational results.  Attendance at these sessions have been “sold out” with almost 80 employees attending every month notes Ms. Theodorou Locke.

Ms. Theodorou  Locke adds “Within most global companies, women are still under-represented among Senior Executive and particularly Corporate Officer roles.  The key purpose and impact of these diversity initiatives is that it drives innovation, customer satisfaction and ultimately, organizational  performance. These leadership forums also help educate organizations on the benefits and rewards of a diverse Senior Executive Team. The impact of formal and informal networking and mentoring programs in my own personal experience, has been absolutely invaluable to me in supporting  my career development, assessing career choices and positioning myself for growth opportunities.”

Brigid Pelino, Senior Vice President, Human  Resources at Tim Horton’s, an iconic and beloved Canadian institution, and the fourth largest publically traded restaurant chain in North America,  has worked in large, complex organizations in both Canada and the US, including Canadian Tire Corporation, Honeywell International and General Electric. In each of these organizations, Ms. Pelino shares that she has not only personally experienced the impact senior executive  networking and mentoring has made in her own professional career, but that she has also witnessed many other successful Senior Executive  women’s career paths that have also benefitted from these critical business relationships. “It doesn’t matter if you work for a multi-national  company building the space shuttle or making coffee, the most effective leadership skills come from developing relationships, at all levels of the business, and broader, relationships, internal and external to the business. Those that do, and do it effectively, often rise to the top of the  organization.”

In her current role, Ms. Pelino has responsibility for implementing all aspects of Tim Horton’s human resources strategy in both  Canada and United States. Ms. Pelino concurs that most innovative companies are clearly recognizing the importance of providing both informal and formal mentoring and networking programs to open doors and to provide further opportunities for growth for women within their companies,  largely because of the benefit it clearly provides to their businesses, and ultimately their Company’s bottom line.

“There is fundamental  recognition, industry wide, that different perspectives facilitate better decision making at all levels of the business, and there is no disputing the  statistical evidence and studies that have documented a clear relationship between women in senior management and corporate financial success. The bottom line is, we can’t effectively run our businesses, without engaging, attracting and retaining our top talent, and this most certainly  includes both up-and-coming leaders and Senior Executive women in our organizations.”

North American wide, Senior Executive and CEO leaders  in the Food Services industry, understand that “its just smart business” to include more Senior Executive Women at their CEO and Board tables, and equally importantly to provide opportunities throughout all levels of their businesses, to ensure that the women in their organizations will be provided the support and opportunity to reach these Senior Executive levels in their organizations.

Adds Ms. Pelino, “Effective mentoring and  networking programs and forums, focused on engaging, inspiring and sharing best practices are a key component to ensuring these successful  outcomes. In Canada, Tim Horton’s, Kraft Foods, Starbucks, Sysco, Aramark, Sodexo, Campbell’s and PepsiCo, all get it, and are taking the lead on these essential leadership and business issues. Collectively, regardless of market competition between us, we recognize at the CEO and Senior  Executive level, the critical importance of ensuring we create opportunities to develop, support and engage women, at all levels in our  organizations. We are actively working together now to build a network for them, between all of us, to provide an opportunity for women to excel within our own companies and industry wide.”

The growing organizational and company recognition and support for these initiatives, across a vast range of industry sectors, combined with organizations like Women of Influence, and each of our individual efforts to continue to build our  own business and mentoring relationships, are collectively leading to an exponential and growing network of extraordinarily successful, and extraordinarily networked, Senior Executive Women on both sides of the border.

As clearly evidenced in the Forbes “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list, mentoring and networking relationships in business, absolutely matter. Without question, these networks, business and mentoring relationships are, have been, and will continue to be, critically essential to breaking business barriers and creating future opportunities for more Senior Executive Women to take a seat at Senior Executive and Board tables both in Canada and the United States.

What is certain, as Condoleezza Rice, a recent Women of Influence sponsored speaker in Toronto, recently articulated is that: “Nobody, nobody, makes it on their own. Everybody’s met that person who’s put them in a position they wouldn’t otherwise have.” As each of us, continues to develop our own Senior Executive career paths and business networks, Ask yourself, who you can you reach out to, in your own organization or company, to open a door to a new business opportunity or experience? What young up-and-coming talent can you mentor, encourage, guide, advise, advocate for, and  support? Who can YOU put in a position they wouldn’t otherwise have?

Lisa Heidman, LL.B., Senior Client Partner, The Bedford Consulting Group, North American Director of Bedford Legal, brings over 15 years of  Legal, Board and Executive Search experience working with Boards and their Senior Leadership teams, placing Board, CEO and C-Suite Executives across functions. With a passion for supporting the career development of best-inclass Executive talent across borders and industries, Lisa is making an innovative mark in this new economic landscape, and is dedicated to elevating and changing the game for innovative corporate  leadership in North America. Appointed to the Board of Directors of Women of Influence in 2009. Lisa can be reached at [email protected]