Corporate women's networks frequently get a bad rap--for good reason. The groups frequently toil on the fringes, hosting "lunch and learns" and book clubs that rarely provide the skills or exposure women need to rise in the ranks. Often, "these initiatives are run by people who don't really have much power," notes Claudia Peus, a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. When she interviewed more than 900 female executives about critical factors in their success, they ranked programs for the promotion of women last. "The spontaneous reaction was, 'They don't work.'"
Yet such initiatives are flourishing. One reason is an eagerness on the part of talent-hungry employers to appear more female-friendly. Networks are cheap, usually relying on female volunteers and garnering little corporate funding. The groups may become little more than social gatherings, and have trouble attracting heavy hitters.
But networks need not be feeble. They can be a magnet for recruiting and retaining top achievers. They may go beyond mentoring and networking to draw in clients, as General Electric Co.'s (GE ) does, or let members work on key business issues, as they do at Best Buy Co. (BBY ) For companies like Deloitte & Touche USA, the network helps address the needs of all employees, male and female. Here's a look at some practices that work:
GET CUSTOMERS IN ON THE ACT
Formed 10 years ago after a handful of senior female employees had dinner with Jack Welch, the GE Women's Network has since grown to 40,000 active members worldwide. Its focus on leadership, advancement, and career-broadening opportunities has helped GE get to the point where women now run businesses generating some $40 billion in sales, more than 20% of total revenues. One distinguishing feature of the network: Its annual Leading & Learning summit that brings together about 150 top-level women, two-thirds of whom are customers or suppliers, to discuss a wide range of ideas and issues. "We did it, thinking it would be a one-off," says Susan Peters, GE's vice-president of executive development and chief learning officer.
Five years later, the Leading & Learning summit has become a coveted invitation both inside and outside the company. Susan Phillips, vice-president of marketing at PayPal Inc., says she came because "the agenda topics and speakers looked amazing and compelling, and I knew there would be a networking opportunity with senior women." The fact that it was an all-female gathering just made for a richer experience, adds Phillips, as she "felt the ability to relate with other participants." Among the speakers at the May 15-16 event this year: eBay Inc. (EBAY ) CEO Meg Whitman, author Karenna Gore Schiff, playwright Sarah Jones, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and Today co-anchor Meredith Vieira. CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt also came, as he always does, to speak and spend a few hours with the participants.
Within GE, the benefits of linking the company network to outsiders are many. One big positive is the exposure. "I don't get an awful lot of opportunities to interact with customers in my job," notes Tracie Winbigler, an executive vice-president at NBC Universal and co-chair of the network. "This gives me a chance to have more external focus." Another payoff to hosting such events is having customers form "a favorable impression of GE," adds co-chair Julie DeWane, who works as a general manager at GE Transportation.
That's one reason why each geographic network "hub"--there are 140 of them around the world--is asked to participate in a range of community activities, from philanthropic ventures to other customer-oriented events. Network members in Europe now plan to hold a similar high-level summit there, and others are looking to extend the concept elsewhere. The buzz is already mounting. "I heard from past participants that it is an incredible opportunity to meet people doing fascinating things," says Michelle McMurry of the Aspen Institute, a GE partner, who went to the May summit. "They were right."
TACKLE REAL BUSINESS PROBLEMS
Julie Gilbert doesn't mind admitting that the women's network at Best Buy started with some hugs. Three and a half years ago, Gilbert, who launched the company's store-within-a-store concept for home theater buffs, noticed that during store visits the few female staffers she'd see would come up and hug her. When she asked a store greeter about it, the young woman told her: "Every day when we have people in from the corporate office, they're all guys. When we see you, we realize if we just keep working hard, one day we'll [get there], too."
Such chummy beginnings belie the pragmatic nature of the network Gilbert would go on to create. Inspired by the encounter with the greeter, Gilbert typed up a business plan for a new women's initiative that night. Unlike the women's network that existed at the time--a 25-person shell of a program at Best Buy's Minneapolis headquarters--Gilbert designed the program as a way for employees, from top executives to cashiers, to get more deeply involved in core business issues. "The frame on it is leadership," she says, "but you don't go to a course to build a leader. You learn by doing actual business issues, by solving business problems."
One problem was coming up with better ways to recruit and retain women in Best Buy's male-dominated, techie culture. In the home theater department, for example, the rate of female turnover was double that of their male colleagues. But just as important, Gilbert wanted the network to be an innovation engine for the company's woefully underserved female customers. At the time, Best Buy was grappling with how to better appeal to women, who influence 89% of consumer electronics purchases and spend $68 billion on them each year.
Gilbert's program, known as WOLF (Women's Leadership Forum), includes a web of regional "WOLF packs" and innovation teams, which are based in Minneapolis. Each of the innovation teams chooses a project, such as finding ways to attract more female customers, and then has to get the ideas into a few stores in three months and into a large number of stores in six. Next month, for example, one WOLF group will launch designer iPod holders and laptop cases in 100 of Best Buy's stores. Another WOLF team is revamping the online gift registry; yet another is working with designers to make stores more woman-friendly.
The efforts are paying off. Recruitment of female sales managers is up 100% over the past year, and the company has a greater share of female customers than before the network started. Internally, the network has found fans among executives like Midwest regional manager Shawn Score, who has attracted more than 300 new female employees and seen turnover among women managers in his territory drop almost 10 percentage points in the last year thanks to the WOLF program. He has also tapped the network to help him better serve women customers. One WOLF team suggested switching signs on washing machines to promote how many loads they hold instead of measuring the machine's volume in cubic feet, leading to more pertinent, mom-friendly signage. "We think that's going to be an absolute home run," says Score.
BRIDGE THE GENDER DIVIDE
Few women's networks can boast of a track record like that of Deloitte. Now in its 14th year, Deloitte's Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women, known as WIN, has been lauded for its success in promoting women to the most senior ranks: 19.3% of partners are women, the highest percentage among the Big Four public accounting firms. That's up from 7% since WIN was started in 1993.
One reason for its success? Many of the programs born out of Deloitte's women's initiative are geared toward both women and men. For instance, the firm is piloting a "mass career customization" program that will give every employee a framework for dialing up and down their hours, travel demands, and responsibilities as their personal needs change over the course of their careers. Unlike flextime or job-sharing policies, which men often avoid because of the stigma still associated with opting into them, everyone in the pilot locations will be enrolled in the program.
Still, such initiatives have little direct impact on hard-charging audit partners whose idea of work-life balance is a three-day weekend after tax season. When asked, says Cathy Benko, the national managing director in charge of WIN, men almost always say that the women's initiative is important. "But then they'll stop, and if they continue, they'll say 'but it hasn't done anything for me.'"
To help change that thinking, Benko came up with a new program two years ago called Women as Buyers. It would specifically help men with what mattered to them--winning more clients--while improving understanding between men and women at the firm. Noticing a dearth of research on how executive women make decisions, the WIN team sponsored a yearlong study on the topic. It has been presenting its findings in four-hour workshops made up of two-thirds men and one-third women.
The sessions remind men of simple differences such as client entertaining (women prefer breakfast to dinner, since they often have more evening responsibilities at home) and communication styles (just because a woman is nodding doesn't mean she agrees with you). While male executives may prefer consultants or accountants to sit by their side, women are more visual than men, the research found, and partners should face women executives in client meetings.
And because women tend to see leadership roles as positions of responsibility rather than power, partners should think carefully about whom they parachute in to help sell services. "If it's a guy, you might want to bring your big mucky-muck in," says Paul Silverglate, an audit partner who went through the training. "Women partners are more focused on who's going to do the work with their team day-to-day. That was very interesting to me."
The feedback from men has been overwhelmingly positive: More than 90% say the workshops were useful. Silverglate, who's also a leader in WIN, says he's even had male colleagues tell him they've used the tips in their personal lives. "If you really want to make a difference for women," says Silverglate, "it has to make sense for all the partners."
By Diane Brady and Jena McGregor