How to Launch a Women’s Affinity Group in Your Office
Last week, Kathi Toll and I, along with nearly 80 other Chicago women had the incredible privilege of spending the morning with Violet Sistovaris and Carrie Hightman, two members of the leadership team at NiSource, one of America’s premiere energy companies. Both Violet and Carrie are exceptional women in that they have risen to the tops of their fields, are engaging leaders who demand excellence of themselves and others, and on top of that have incredibly fulfilling personally lives. But on top of their phenomenal personal and professional accomplishments, the two are dedicated strongly to the advancement of women and girls, as is NiSource. The breakfast we attended was a part of the professional development programming from Step Up Women’s Network and was organized in part by Tiara Coaching. That’s a lot of women power, right!?
Violet and Carrie talked leadership and power and many other topics, but most notably, discussed in depth how they started a women’s affinity group within NiSource that increases engagement for women in the company and provides a forum for mentorship, sponsorship, professional development, and networking internally and externally for women.
Because Violet and Carrie’s advice was so clear and concrete, today, I want to provide all of our CGN readers with their step-by-step plan to begin a women’s affinity group in your own company. Check with your Diversity & Inclusion Offices, Human Resources, or Leadership Team to find out if your company has a women’s group already. And if it doesn’t, become that leader who makes it happen!
Set Goals First!
- What do you want to accomplish with a women’s group in your office? Gossip? No. Professional development? Absolutely! First things first, you want to develop a clear goal. NiSource has a great one, and I’m sure they won’t mind if you lift it from them: “Attract. Develop. Retain.”
- Always tie the goals of your women’s group to the goals of the company overall. You will receive push back from key leaders in this process, but they’re much more likely to jump on board if they can see that your initiative’s goals are directly in concert with the goals of the company overall.
Step By Step: Launching a Women’s Affinity Group in Your Office
- Create a core team. This team should include individuals who are decision makers and sponsors in leadership, but also women from other levels in the company to ensure everyone has a voice in the development of the program.
- Plan a kickoff event. Violet and Carrie decided that NiSource needed a Women’s Summit. They gained support for the event and invited over 100 of NiSource’s women to a Summit that brought to the table incredible speakers, breakout sessions, and 1:1 sessions with leadership at NiSource. It was a huge hit, and continues to be a part of their Women’s Affinity Group’s initiatives today.
- Ask for feedback from your constituencies. After NiSource’s first Women’s Summit, Carrie and Violet’s team polled the women in attendance. They asked what was needed from the Women’s Affinity Group within NiSource and came up with a number of great ideas, including a mentorship program, professional development events, meetings, and more.
- Clarify and gain consensus through continued focus groups. Decisions about a Women’s Affinity Group shouldn’t and cannot be made in a vacuum. Take the time to convene multiple internal focus groups, discuss possibilities, and listen to the feedback you receive.
- Continue to expand your core team. Violet and Carrie recognized that while they were the drivers of the initiative initially, they couldn’t continue to be forever, so they constantly expanded their team to include new departments and offices within NiSource, gaining buy in from women all across the company.
- Brand the program internally. NiSource branded their program “Women in Leadership” and created a logo, an internal website, and additional marketing materials to support it. This is a must. to have an internal brand shows that the company is behind the creation and development of the program over time.
- Track the benefits of the program over time. At NiSource, a part of the Women’s Affinity Group is a mentorship program. Each cycle of this program, the mentees set goals that align with the goals of their current position and with the company’s goals. At the end of the program, then, the Women’s Group is able to quantify the affect the mentorship program had on these mentees. Did they perform at a higher level? Receive better reviews from their supervisors? This kind of quantifiable data is your key defense of any affinity program.
Tips for Success
- Don’t be exclusionary. Sure, this is a women’s group, but that doesn’t mean men should be excluded. Often, to get a group of women involved in the group, you need the buy in of their boss, who may or may not be a woman. Take the time to educate the men in your company about why this initiative is not only good for the women in it, but good for the company as well.
- It’s a long game, not a short one! NiSource’s Women’s Affinity Group is three years old, but they recognize there is a long way to grow in their process. Today, over 800 NiSource women actively participate. Set your sights on the long term gains of the group, not short term membership.
- Start first with hard skills. It’s easy for men to push back on a women’s group when they tackle issues like “work life balance” and other things that seem “fluffy.” Instead, begin your program with hard skills based development programs like negotiation, productivity, internal communications, etc. These kinds of skill sets are much more easily quantified to leadership than those (though still important) soft skills.
Violet and Carrie are two trailblazing women who saw a need and filled it for the women of NiSource. They are an inspiration to anyone who ever looked around their office and said, “Where are the women?” or “Why isn’t there more programming for women here?” Take the initiative and ask your leadership how you can get involved in a women’s group in your own corporation. Violet and Carrie said, the key is dedication, but also the realization that not everyone will think it’s a good idea, and not every woman will participate. But your work is worth it because it gives additional resources to a key group within your corporation to excel, stay with the company, and contribute to its success.