WE: Women Encouraging One Another

When Ella Fitzgerald was asked how she became so successful, she said: “It’s simple; I owe it all to one woman, Marilyn Monroe. She stood up for me. She went to the owner of the Mocambo Club in 1955 and told him that, if he gave me a gig for one week, she’d be there every night at the front table. And she was. The press went wild. I never had to play a small club again.”

One of the most cited barriers to women’s advancement is a lack of informal networks. From asking a woman her opinion in the staff meeting, to recommending her for a leadership role, to organizing gatherings for female colleagues (as Sen. Barbara Mikulski did in the Senate), the next step for women’s leadership is WE; Women Encouraging One Another.

Rewriting the Story

Too often, the narrative is one of women competing. Almost every woman has a tale of being burned by a female friend. What is feeding this fierceness? Research has found a chronic  not-good-enoughness syndrome in women. This causes us to apply for a job only when we have 100% of the qualifications, while men will apply when they have 60%. “I first became aware of this while coaching men and women on their presentations at Bell Laboratories,” says Next Level Leadership CEO and Executive Coach Brigid Moynahan, “The women would prepare twice as hard, yet feel less ready than their male counterparts, who’d come in telling me they planned to ‘wing it.’” Is this insecurity preventing us from supporting one another?

The Confidence Gap, to which Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman refer, is not without warrant. Women leaders fall under more scrutiny than men, with tougher and more personally targeted performance reviews. Then there’s the glaringly obvious scarcity of women at the top, causing an understandable anxiety about needing to be ‘the one’ who makes it.

Whatever the cause, it’s time for a shift in thinking from “I can do it” to “We can do it.” Tribal Leadership embodies this shift from the “I” to the “We” and is marked by increased productivity and ingenuity. Over more than 16 years of The Rutgers’ Executive Leadership Program for Women (ELP), we’ve seen the power of WE. When women find themselves in mutually supportive friendships, it feels profoundly right…and creates amazing results.

The moment we connected, we became closer as a team. Everything from that first hour forward–it was a safe place.”–Gina, ELP Fall 2013

At the ELP, we begin by sitting in a circle and asking participants to speak to one another. Rather than introducing themselves by levels and roles, which can shoot many women into the all too familiar, “I’m not good enough to be here” threat response, they introduce themselves by sharing a bit of what they don’t usually bring to the workplace- hobbies, families, and passions.

“Connections were made almost instantaneously,” says Cynthia Ritter, ELP 2013.  One woman recalled this opening conversation with gratitude. She had been doing triple duty–working full time for a Fortune 100 pharma, raising her two sons, and caring for her aging mother. We asked the group if they had care-taking responsibilities at home. Being able to share this brought her relief from a burden she hadn’t realized she was holding. She could be her whole self here.

The effort to hide parts of ourselves, or “cover,” is an emotional and mental drain that 61% of people experience every day at work, according to a 2013 Deloitte study. This strain holds many women back from embodying their leadership presence. Mutually supportive groups by and for women offer a respite from the balancing act of leadership–a place to take off the heels, shake out the hair, and know you’re not in it alone.

The women we meet are true web-style leaders, linchpins holding up complex networks of family, community organizations, business contacts, and friends. They come to our programs surrounded by countless tiny threads pulling this way and that. By speaking about emotional ties, we experience “name it to tame it.” By “naming” the stressor, its emotional pull is “tamed.” Sharing with a trusted group of women who can relate is a great relief. As Dyanne Leonardo says, one of the most valuable takeaways of the program is “speaking to other women and thinking, ‘I am doing okay.’”

Beyond Cliques

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”–Einstein.

The “tend and befriend” impulse runs strongly in women. The flip side of tight connections is that they are often forged by exclusion. How do you know you’re in? She’s not. This way of thinking is buoyed by a misconception of the capacity for human generosity as a finite resource. When we shift to a WE mindset, we begin to experience the abundance reaped from meeting each new relationship with the intention of generosity.

One of the most powerful things a woman can do for her career is to create her own networks, mentors, and sponsors. Programs like the Rutgers Executive Leadership Program connect women to a network of peers, as well as a long line of successful alumni.

“To lead with courage, you need an environment where other people are encouraging you, as in putting courage in you…so that your self-confidence is a constant.”–Dorothea Grimes-Farrow, ELP 2000

The Benefits of Supporting Other Women

The best investment you can make is in friends who’ll support you. Giving back is food for our health and well-being. Studies have found acts of kindness increase happiness, and we are more productive when in a positive mindset. When women take time out of their day to day to connect with and support other women–not only do they not regret the time away from their work–they come back energized and inspired, with clearer direction and greater productivity. As Tony Schwartz has explored in his work on The Corporate Athlete, excellent performance has little to do with “time management” and everything to do with “energy management.”

When it comes to connecting, it’s quality over quantity; what Dr. Barbara Fredrickson calls “micro-moments of love.” These are what make a difference for our well-being and the well-being of others.

Spread the WE

We find the women we work with want to pass the work on–from offering coaching to mentees to becoming our partners who launch internal programs for their organizations. This is the contagion of WE.

What can you do today to be a source of WE? Our actions reverberate further and stronger than we can ever know.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”–Maya Angelou


Enrollment for our Fall 2015 Rutgers Executive Leadership Program for Women, launching Sept. 16th, is now open. In its 16th year, with a 36% rate advancement into more senior roles among graduates, our glass ceiling initiative is changing the playing field for women. For more information, and to apply click here.

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