Personal Advisory Boards: Networks for Women Leaders - IEDP
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Personal Advisory Boards: Networks for Women Leaders

A female answer to the old boy's network


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It is famously ‘lonely at the top’ and the way that top leaders traditionally have coped with this issue has been to rely on informal ‘old boys networks’, discussing problems or challenges over late night whiskies or a game of golf. Horribly stereotyped as this maybe it does shine a light on the clubbish networks senior leaders often rely on. The problem is that these networks very largely are male domains and senior women leaders frequently find that there is no such ‘infrastructure’ available to them to replicate it.

Geeta Sheker - Director of Rotman's Women In Business InitiativeGeeta Sheker is the Director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. In 2003 she oversaw the launch of the nationally renowned Judy Project, a leadership forum for Canada’s most senior corporate women. Since the 2008 launch of the Initiative for Women in Business, Geeta has created a broad portfolio of programs focused on advancing women’s careers and has overseen the development of Personal Advisory Boards. In 2009, Geeta was honoured for her work in advancing the economic empowerment of women as one of the International Alliance for Women’s (TIAW’s) 2009 World of Difference Award recipients.

Geeta Sheker is the Director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto which has just celebrated the tenth anniversary of its flagship program ‘The Judy Project’, named after Judy Elder who was a ground-breaking senior woman leader at Microsoft Canada before her early death. ‘Elder was very ambitious for other women’ says Sheker and the project was created in her name to foster female talent at the highest levels.

The ‘Judy Project’ has now seen over 250 senior women leaders go through its program and its alumni network is already a force to be reckoned with, with influential members holding leadership positions in Canadian and global organizations. Participants travel from across Canada, and as far afield as Azerbaijan and the Dominican Republic, to be part of this exclusive leadership forum. However, this is just a successful by-product of the program and not its core strength – though a variant of the support network is exactly that.

As Sheker explains “one of the compelling features of the Judy Project is the ‘Personal Advisory Board’ that all of the program attendees participate in – and though the actual leadership program only lasts a week these Personal Advisory Boards endure in a profound and lasting way.” The formal six-day program includes many of the key leadership program attributes seen in other top-rated interventions – with conversations with high-profile senior leader guest speakers, sessions on thinking strategically and the opportunity for self-reflection and exploring your ‘personal brand’.

At the end of the week, when the group of around 25-30 participants have got to know each other, and the program director has seen how they work and interact, they are divided into four or five groups of around seven individuals to create their Personal Advisory Boards. Sheker notes that the selection of the groups is not hugely complex, it is more about not mixing people who might be direct competitors in business, or taking travel/location issues into account than ever having to take personality into the mix. “The diversity of the group is important, as it can leverage best practice across sectors, experience and perspectives – and this is really the vital element that women can often find hard to access otherwise” says Sheker.

“The purpose of the PABs is to enable open sharing between group members; and with the growth of this trust allow them to call you on your blind-spots and give advice” she explains. Initially this can be difficult for the participants, but over the sessions they learn to appreciate its power and the strength it can bring.

“These are not social groups” Sheker points out “they are very much professional support groups. We provide them with a format on how the groups should operate and encourage them to stick to it. Over time these rules may morph within the groups, but essentially they are adhered to….The groups meet regularly every month, and the principle is that if you miss two consecutive meetings then you are out. The important message being that these meetings are not ‘optional’, to work they require commitment from the participants”. And the results indicate that for that commitment the participants get plenty of return on their time invested.

"Celebrate the fact that you want to go far! And while you're at it, celebrate it in others, especially other women" said Judy Elder – and with the right support the Judy Project alumni have shown that they do just that.

Watch Prof Tiziana Casciaro on the difference between co-ed and women only executive programs:

The Judy Project is the founding program of the now wider Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management. The Rotman Initiative offers leadership and professional development programs for women at different stages of their career, as well as organizational resources and networks that help to advance women’s leadership and build diverse and inclusive business cultures. Sheker and her team are exploring the opportunity to run these programs in various locations globally, so offering the benefits of the Judy Project to a wider audience.

Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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