The Power of Reciprocity: Women Supporting Women

Justine McDermott, Area Partner Manager for Cisco in the United Kingdom, talks about the success her organization has had supporting women seeking a leadership track.

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Justine McDermott knew it was time to spread the word.

An Area Partner Manager for Cisco—a worldwide leader in IT, networking, and cybersecurity solutions—McDermott had worked for many years to support women seeking a leadership track in their careers. She had taken many external courses (including some offered by LHH) aimed at helping women become leader and even designed one in-house program—Standing Together to Achieve Results (STAR)—which had been met with very positive reviews.

However, McDermott, who works at the company’s UK head office in Manchester, noticed that many of Cisco’s partner organizations—companies that sell and support Cisco’s broad range of high-tech products and solutions—often did not have the resources to run their own women in leadership programs. So, she worked with LHH and designed a new program—BridgeTheGap—and invited women from these third-party organizations to join her program.

Taking an internal development program and turning it into a cross-company offering was a bold but ultimately rewarding experience.

“I had been able to drive a program that really helped a lot of women at Cisco,” said McDermott. “But I worked on a team that supports our partners, many of them with longstanding relationships with our company. I thought that it would be a good idea to offer our program to them as another form of support for our partner organizations.”

McDermott’s own leadership journey confirmed that organizations need to find ways to support and create opportunities for women to rise up the hierarchy.

“I’ve always had a lot of support at Cisco in terms of my development as a woman” said McDermott. “After nine years, I’m already a manager, which is quite a fast rise up the ladder. A lot of our employees really like working at Cisco and they don’t tend to move on. That can make moving up quite slow.”

Promoting women into leadership roles—both at the executive and board level—is a major public policy priority in the UK, thanks in large part to the 30% Club campaign. Started in 2010 by Dame Helena Morrissey, a prominent financier and philanthropist, the campaign started with the goal of getting a minimum of 30 percent female representation on the boards of all companies listed on the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE).
 
When that goal was reached in 2018, the campaign shifted focus and advocated a minimum of 30 percent women in senior leadership roles of FTSE companies by this year. That goal was also achieved ahead of schedule; currently, the campaign estimates that 31.7 percent of FTSE companies have senior women leaders in place.

McDermott said the BridgeTheGap program attempted to address the broader goal of continuing to increase the number of women in decision-making roles by fashioning a course that touched on some of the most critical leadership skills in demand today. This included things like increased accountability, the capacity to lead change and influence others, tactics for boosting employee engagement, and the willingness to challenge the status quo, she added.

When McDermott began reaching out to women in partner companies—to gauge their interest—she found there was both a need and a demand. “There was a lot of interest,” she said. “Some were new managers and others were on a leadership track and looking for a promotion,” she said. “Sometimes, the women just wanted to develop more confidence to change their current role.”

When the program finally launched with 12 women from partner companies, the results were very encouraging. Women in the pilot program helped identify topics to be discussed in an environment where “what is said in the room, stays in the room,” McDermott said. 

“So, people could talk about their companies openly without worrying about repercussions.” That combination of openness and security was just the mix that many of the participants were looking for. “The program helped me recognize my strengths without spending too much time on my weaknesses,” said Beckie Modeley, head of service delivery for Comms-care, a UK firm that provides IT support services. “That really boosts your confidence and changes your mindset. It really spurred me on and made me think about my career more seriously.”

The opportunity to work on personal development as a woman leader was great, but so too were the opportunities to meet women from other organizations, Modeley said. It was a vivid reminder that aspiring women everywhere struggle with the same barriers and challenges.

“Since I took Justine’s program, I’ve put our own mentoring program in place for women in my organization,” Modeley said. “And I’m very keen to get some of the women on my team into Justine’s program. The type of people you meet in that room really encouraged us to take the next leap in promoting women leaders.”

Personally, Modeley said the program has helped her adopt new leadership skills and promote those to others in her organization. These skills include adopting a more authentic and assertive leadership style, building a personal brand within the company, and “creating an emotional connection through recognition and trust so that my team feel they are making meaningful contributions.”

McDermott said she will continue to grow and refine the program at Cisco and look for opportunities to bring in more women from a wider variety of organizations. She said the connections she has made through offering this program have definitely helped her not only establish deeper relationships with client organizations but also dig deeper into the challenges facing all women.

“There are lots of women who still feel like they are—I hate to say it—second best. Sometimes it’s just a feeling that comes naturally to them. It’s hard to say why, that’s just the way they feel. Any program that can help these individual women really think about their careers and convince them that they are good enough is time well spent.”

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