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Henley Leadership Group Blog

3 Ways To Start Building Solid Relationships With Women At Work


Previously published on Forbes.com

I have a confession to make. I haven’t always been good at working with other women.

When I was an ambitious woman in my twenties, sexism was rampant. I read a book called Games Your Mother Never Taught You by Betty Lehan Harragan, and I learned that if I wanted to win at the game that was created by men, for men, then I had to act like one of them. I cut my hair. I never wore a dress. I went for pantsuits and tailored shirts. I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was a woman. That would be career limiting. Having also been betrayed in high school by several close female friends, I’d “learned my lesson.” I mostly avoided women and hung out with the guys. It was easier.

I was in my early forties when I realized I had no close female friends. In fact, I was unconsciously competing with women for scarce promotions and professional gain. And that’s when I decided to ask myself some hard questions: Did I trust other women? Did I trust myself?

I felt isolated and alone. I wanted to learn how to be a good friend to other women.

I met Carol Zizzo in 2001 through a mutual acquaintance who thought that she and I should work together. At first, we didn’t get it. Carol was working in social services, and I was consulting to corporate America. These worlds were really far apart. What was our connection?

We discovered that we had a values match. And we realized that we both believe in the power of clear leadership, communication and purpose-driven contribution. Little by little, we began building a leadership development consulting firm together, and she became my business partner in 2010.

In our company, we’re clear about our vision and values. We honor our team’s lives outside of work and challenge them to bring their very best to work. We believe that everything works better if you just unplug for a few minutes – the power of creative mind-wandering. We are friends and co-workers and partners in the growth of our company.

Imagine a world where you come to work and you have these kinds of relationships with the men and women you work with. You work alongside one another on projects that matter. Your perspective and your view of things is encouraged and listened to by your bosses and your colleagues. You’re paid well. You leave work feeling well-used, not used up. Based on our own experience and that of many others, Carol and I believe that having more women in positions of leadership can lead to these kinds of empowering cultures.

Businesses Need Women Working Together

More and more studies also confirm the notion that we need more women leaders working together. A 2015 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey reported that companies with the highest percentage of female directors have been shown to outperform on return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. They have lower stock price volatility. And those with more women at the top have even been shown to have fewer governance controversies, such as bribery and fraud.

In other words, more women in charge means better business. For everyone. According to a recent McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Additionally, a 2015 study referred to in this article from Bersin by Deloitte showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies did.

These are only the tip of the iceberg. I could summarize a litany of studies showing the business value and bottom-line impact of women leaders, but the important thing for women leaders and aspiring leaders to remember is this: We need you. We need your voice and your perspective. We need your leadership and your vision. And we women need to work together to cause productive change.

What Gets in the Way of Women Working Well Together

Of course, it’s not as easy as just saying it. In an article for the American Management Association, Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster highlighted some of the innate barriers that can get in the way of a productive relationship.

“Women’s tendency to bond with other women is a complicating factor when competitive feelings emerge at work,” they write.  “A woman can like her coworker but still feel jealous when the coworker gets promoted. She may admire her colleague’s presentation skills yet feel threatened by that same person’s popularity. Or, a female employee may respect her boss professionally but resent her material wealth and extravagant vacations.”

Competition between women can disrupt communication and information sharing, which leads to lowered productivity, mediocre outcomes and high turnover. It can also feel as if you’re struggling with a personal failing rather than being caught in a cultural dynamic where women disempower other women.

Start Building Solid Relationships with Women at Work

Women have to learn how to work together in more empowering ways. That’s how we’ll become more creative, experience more job satisfaction, enjoy our work lives and build thriving companies. Here are a few ways we can become better partners at work:

  1. Build friendships with the people you work with. This means that you genuinely admire their skill and talents. You trust their values and ethics, and your friendship will ensure that you are equally committed to working through things with grace, especially those high-pressure, complex situations. It also means you have fun together! Fun and friendship are not luxuries. They’re a necessity. Spend time together, laughing at the outrageousness and excitement of the whole endeavor.
  2. Address conflict without collateral damage. If you aren’t running into conflict, you aren’t pushing your limits enough. Conflict isn’t bad; it is what happens when people see the world differently — and you want this. Addressing it without collateral damage is the secret to experiencing conflict that makes you better. Talk it through — what’s working, what’s not, and how you can improve. Don’t gossip or make personal attacks.
  3. Be responsible for your weaknesses. If you are incapable of seeing your weaknesses — particularly the things you do that are hard for the people you work with — then you will end up being defensive and a pain to work with. Any time you spend being defensive is time wasted. Own your part in whatever isn’t working. Then you will be able to de-escalate situations and move through them with grace. Your vulnerability is a necessary part of partnership.

Carol and I have created something truly remarkable. Together, we have withstood big setbacks personally and professionally. We talk nearly every day. We make every major decision together. I have learned how to be a good friend. Today, we are thriving and doing good work in the world.