When we’re facing a problem we don’t know how to solve, we often want an expert to step in and guide us. The impulse is natural; most of us want advice when we’re doing something new. But when it comes to work, most of us fall into the trap of equating expertise with seniority or title. What I’ve learned from running EverwiseWomen, a year-long leadership development program for emerging women leaders, is how much we can gain from peers and colleagues at our level – if we know the right way to tap into this wisdom.
Step 1: Adjust your gaze
The first step is to stop looking up and start looking around. Before you can leverage the wisdom of your peers, you need to find peers you trust, respect, and want to learn more from. While this may sound obvious, it’s not always easy to do – especially for women. In fact, only half of the women in EverwiseWomen begin the program with a strong internal network and only one-third begin the program with a strong external network.
To develop a peer network, it pays to think broadly. Who do you know at your organization who is doing interesting work? Who is doing your role in another department? What about at another organization? Who is in an industry that you find particularly exciting?
If you’re feeling stumped, you might try the following tactics to find some like-minded peers:
- Reach out to colleagues from another department – perhaps one that you’d like to learn more about
- Connect with an employee resource group (ERG) at your company or start one!
- Attend meet-ups or networking events around an area of interest
- Ask a friend to introduce you to a friend of theirs
- Enroll in a formal development program (like EverwiseWomen), which provides a structured way to build relationships over time
Step 2: Flip the switch from networking to relationship-building
The mindset you bring to your peer network is critical. When we ask women in our program to define “networking,” they invariably use the words “awkward,” “forced,” and “phony.” But to get the most out of your peer relationships, it’s important to shift your thinking from “networking” to “relationship-building.”
In our program, we help women build relationships modeled on their close friendships: relationships built on authenticity, vulnerability, accountability, and direct feedback. This creates a safe space for learning and growth to occur.
What’s the secret ingredient to building these relationships? Empathy. At our Kick-Off Workshop, we ask participants to share a “great joy” and a “great pain” from their life with their peer group. While the exercise may seem daunting at first, many participants have told us that this activity was crucial in determining success of the group: it was the moment they decided to bring their full selves to the experience, not just their “work selves.”
Step 3: Share, ask, discuss
When you’ve built a close relationship with someone, it’s tempting to want to solve their problems for them or tell them what to do. After all, if you have advice about how to help them, why wouldn’t you share it? Yet we’ve found through EverwiseWomen that the form in which you share your perspective plays a big role in whether your message gets through.
Rather than share advice, we encourage participants to ask each other questions and share stories from their own careers and experiences. That’s because the only way a person can truly see a solution is when they come up with it themselves.
Here’s an example from a real EverwiseWomen peer group: Molly had a direct report who couldn’t take feedback well. In fact, when Molly tried to deliver fair performance feedback, the direct report turned on Molly and accused her of “ganging up on her.” Molly was upset by this turn of events and brought her challenge to her peer group. Instead of jumping in with advice, her group asked questions to help them understand the root of the problem. At the core of it, Molly felt bad that the direct report had turned on her and was starting to question her own managerial skills.
Then, Molly’s peer Anna shared a story about a time when she was in a similar situation and had to learn not to take the situation so personally. By the end of the peer group, Molly felt validated as a manager, less isolated in her experience, and had learned not to take the situation with her direct report as a testament to her managerial skills.
Consider what might have happened, however, if Anna had simply told Molly, “Don’t take it personally!” It’s likely that Molly would have brushed off the advice, feeling defensive or unheard. But because Anna shared a story rather than advice, Molly was able to arrive at the insight herself and walk out of the meeting feeling validated.
Now it’s your turn
The story from Molly and Anna is just one of many that I’ve heard in my two years running EvewiseWomen. I’ve been impressed, humbled, and inspired by the ways that our participants have supported and learned from each other. Ultimately, that’s why our peer groups are impactful: it’s not just that we connect women with each other, but we also give them the tools to get the most out of the relationships.