WASHINGTON, June 10, 2013 — One of the most difficult leaps to make in the corporate world is the one you have to take to join the ranks of senior management. Climbing the corporate ladder at that height is formidable for nearly everyone.
But it is an even steeper climb for women.
Any individual trying to break into these hallowed ranks faces dozens of formidable obstacles. The biggest one, of course, is professional credibility. This is typically established by an individual’s job performance in addition to any P&L results for which that individual is directly accountable.
But as many know, one very challenging obstacle to overcome is entry into what is generally known as the “old boys network.” As the term implies, this is a group of individuals, almost always men, who dwell together like an elite club at the top of an organization.
Though their group dynamic presents uniquely in different companies, the “old boys network” is generally defined by a commonly held code of beliefs, values and perhaps, most importantly, by strong interpersonal relationships that often extend back to college and family ties. In any organization, this club is generally a pre-established social network from which any person, especially a woman, will find herself initially dissimilar. And automatically excluded.
Imagine a group of male directors who run an organization. They may have founded the company together. They are likely to be around the same age. They have started and raised families at the same time, may be interested in the same sports and may have shared life crises together. These men have found that the most valuable connection in business happens to be themselves, and in corporate and often personal life, they are welded to one another with trust.
How can a woman break through the social part of the glass ceiling? How can she build strong enough connections with the old boys network to join their ranks and leave her own mark?
Old boys networks have actually been opening up to women more and more lately, with businesswomen like Ellen Kullman (the CEO of DuPont) and Indra Nooyi (the CEO of PepsiCo) demonstrating that women are not only becoming part of what was once an exclusively male club, but are also actively revolutionizing it. This growing trend suggests that Boards of Directors recognize that the success of a company is not determined by the gender of their senior level officials, but rather, by the quality of their leadership and capabilities. Yet knowing this, how have women been accepted into the old boys network?
Since relationships are forged with common connections and interests, the easiest way to become part of the group is for you to present yourself as a natural fit. Therefore, if you can ascertain what the leaders of your organization are interested in, such as golf, it is critical that you learn about that subject yourself from any angle you find comfortable – playing, watching, organizing events, or going to charity golf outings.
Studying the common “talking themes” of the social network such as golf, other sports, the market, families, or their friends as if they were academic subjects may also pay significant dividends. In casual conversation, you will be able to discuss the latest news, opine about the state of sport or knowledgably discuss present issues, building common ground in the process. Enough conversations and an active interest could beget inclusion in regular conversations or activities involving the topic.
If the CEO or director likes baseball, for example, begin to watch games and read the box scores in the morning. You never know where a casual conversation could lead you that morning, but at the very least, discussing this kind of information briefly can often serve as an excellent conversational ice breaker. Furthermore, as a woman, the possession of such knowledge might be unexpected by this CEO and therefore doubly appreciated in conversation.
As your connection to the old boys network begins to blossom, it is also important to remember to demonstrate your value to the company as well. Women have not only to prove that they are supremely competent. More importantly, they must also demonstrate they can continually get the job done like no one else on board.
Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox and the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, had humble beginnings at Xerox. Starting as a summer intern in 1980, Ms. Burns worked tirelessly, completing multiple job roles for the company, to demonstrate that she was deserving of greater responsibility and was an invaluable employee. It took 29 years, but Ms. Burns breached both racial and gender barriers when she was eventually awarded the title of CEO.
Ginni Rometty, the first female CEO of IBM, has never shied away from challenges. Ms. Rometty entered the ranks of the almost exclusively male leadership of IBM because she proved that she was the most worthy employee to lead the company. Ms. Rometty effectively delegates tasks, is unafraid to admit her own limitations, and, most importantly, she is keenly aware of the interests and concerns of her employees.
Her attendance at the Masters Tournament is testament to this very sentiment. Because IBM has been a long time sponsor of the PGA and because golf is one of IBM’s time-honored traditions, Rometty bravely applied for a membership to the Atlanta National Gulf Club in 2012, despite knowing the club’s men-only membership policy. Not only was Rometty trying to represent her organization in a manner similar to CEOs before her, but she openly combatted discrimination as she attempted to open up doors to women who had been previously barred.
Once a woman, or anyone trying to break into a senior management position, proves completely trustworthy in and out of the office and has built enough common ground with the higher ups in their organization, that person will have successfully become an inextricable part of the leadership society. As a trailblazer, that person’s influence could also help ensure that the climb is smoother for the next candidate attempting to make the steep ascent.
Indeed, the best way to transform and modernize the old boys network is to change it from the inside, out.
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