Women execs form support systems

On a sunny South Florida day, about a dozen women are seated around a long table overlooking sailboats on Biscayne Bay. They’ve brought their laptops. They’ve brought their power suits. They’ve brought business cards. They’ve brought their energy.

For the next few hours, I watch these women immerse themselves in conversations ignoring e-mail and cellphones to be advisers, confidantes and strategists to each other.

Remember the all-male country clubs, the business clubs, the Saturday golf games where men networked, made deals and landed new clients? These social rituals and institutions often shut out women who are beginning to emerge as business owners and leaders.

Finally, women are making their own spaces, creating their own friendly turf for helping each other in business. In closed-door confidential meetings, women are forming their own support systems.

“We’re acting as each other’s board of directors,” says Penny Shaffer, market president of BlueCross BlueShield and facilitator of this particular women’s forum for The Commonwealth Institute South Florida.

Founded 10 years ago, The Commonwealth Institute started in the Boston living room of Lois Silverman and has blossomed into a large organization for women CEOs, executives and entrepreneurs. It also has spun off eight of these forums in New England and five of them in South Florida. Silverman told me she formed TCI because she felt isolated as a woman in business and balancing demands on her time. She sees the forums as a vital outlet for businesswomen to help each other make better decisions and avoid mistakes. It’s different than male forums, Silverman says, because they share more personal information. “These women have work-related issues and home-related issues. One impacts the other. They need help to meld the two,” she says.

This South Florida forum meets monthly and the women are expected to attend regularly with one exception: “If a business opportunity comes up, go take care of it,” Shaffer says.

On this day, as I sit among this brain trust, the women take turns going around the table, sharing an update of their professional and personal lives. Talk ranges from planning ahead for maternity leave to planning a wedding to restructuring a business.

Each, woman, in her own way, is coping with the sour economy. A banker wants to reach her budget goals but is challenged by the current loan environment. An electrical contractor gets suggestions for places to network with people who can help her score new projects. A small-business owner talks about cutting costs and a new acquisition.

The listeners chime in, offering ideas for taking a business in a new direction or finding new ways to make money. Shaffer also reminds each member of goals or business ideas they spoke about the month before, asking for their progress. “This is our way of making them accountable,” she explains.

When it’s her turn, a recently downsized financial professional offers the latest on her work prospects. She’s asked about her severance arrangement. She’s coached on how to get consulting work. And then, the conversation turns personal: “What’s going on with the wedding plans?”

One executive in the group is missing today. The women are thrilled. She’s pursuing a potential sale of her small business to a buyer that another group member had identified. They can’t wait to hear about it at the next meeting.

Now, comes the presenter. This month, it’s the founder of a nonprofit, Sonia Jacobson, founder of Suited for Success. She gets unlimited time to go over the goals for her organization in detail. Today, timing is ideal. She’s considering major changes. She shares with the group an opportunity that has come her way and gets the probing questions you would want your senior executives to ask: “How would this affect your tax status? Would this create a burden on your staff?” These are questions that Jacobson hadn’t considered. She plans to get answers.

I’m amazed that these women in different careers from varied backgrounds have developed this high level of trust. Jodi Cross, executive director of TCI South Florida, tells me she’s awed and is encouraged to create more forums: “They are each other’s solid foundation. They are lifting each other up.”

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.