Personal Advisory Boards: a New Opportunity for Women Leaders

In the classic model of mentoring, a more senior person helps guide the career of a more junior organizational member by assisting in that person’s personal and professional development.

But that approach has become obsolete. How so?

1. The hierarchical assumptions of that model don’t apply to many businesses today. The rapid spread of digital technology has boosted the stock of knowledge workers who possess specific technical skills rather than general competencies more characteristic of senior leaders. Access to those knowledge workers—who are younger and less experienced than traditional mentors, yet more up-to-date on the latest technological developments—is highly valued in organizations today.

2. As businesses expand and collaborate with other businesses—through joint ventures, outsourcing, etc.—a protégé’s work is likely to cross organizational boundaries, requiring developmental assistance from outside the immediate organization. Likewise, as organizations themselves are restructured—through resizing, mergers, acquisitions, etc.—a protégé can’t rely on one mentor being around for long.

3. The world of work has shifted dramatically in the last decade and people are communicating in networked ways through the immediacy of digital technology. People are connecting to different associates—sometimes several “degrees” removed—through social media and are becoming accustomed to receiving information and even social support from many sources digitally.

4. Many of these mentoring relationships don’t work optimally because they are arranged by the company. Such “forced marriages” often do not breed the same positive chemistry as a relationship chosen by the protégé.

5. As organizations have become more diverse, one mentor is unlikely to have the knowledge and experience to relate to a wide range of situations. To put it simply: one person can’t know everything you need to know.

All of this argues for a different system of mentorship.

One company, dedicated to giving women leaders the support they need to become successful, has found a new approach. WomenLEAD ( a Boston-based start-up, offers a social-network-based Personal Advisory Board™ targeted to women. In this model an individual has a group of advisors, providing an assortment of perspectives and skills across organizational boundaries.

This method assumes that everyone has a contribution to make—junior people and senior people—offering a wealth of viewpoints on any goal or subject that a woman leader is working on. Advisors can also build on each other’s perspectives—enhancing the value of the advice. In the process advisors can even learn from each other.

The many-to-one Personal Advisory Board™ combines the power of the social network with tools for advancement, providing members with relevant content to enrich learning and development—accelerating their growth as leaders and thus building a pipeline of talented women who can rise to the top of their organizations.

This approach enables women leaders to get the advice they need when they need it—advice that can be offered in three-to-ten minutes of micro-advising, or longer. Face-to-face contact is not required, but can be included. The length and depth of support depends on the needs of the advisee.

This advisory board model provides opportunities not just for individual women but for their businesses and for the global economy.

First, there is growing evidence that promoting women to senior levels increases the financial performance of those firms. A Catalyst report states, “On average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 percent” in return on equity.­  An Illuminate Ventures white paper on hi-tech start-ups concludes, “Organizations that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE and 34% better total return to shareholders versus their peers.”

Second, there are projected benefits for the economy as a whole.  In the US, 50% of entry-level professional workers are women, yet women comprise only 14% of executives. Among Fortune 500 companies they make up 4.2%.  Goldman Sachs research indicates that increasing women’s participation in the workforce would increase the GDP by up to 9% in the US—and by 13% in Europe and 16% in Japan.

But a majority of women in STEM careers leave their workplace mid-career—according to a Harvard Business Review study.  The factors in this exodus include feeling isolated, dealing with a “macho culture,” having no clear career path, experiencing extreme work pressures, and lacking mentors, role models, and sponsors. With every woman who leaves mid-career the odds of closing the gender gap at the top of an organization diminishes. But beyond the social cost, companies pay a financial cost as well: $100k on average to replace each mid-career woman.

The solution has become obvious: provide women with the support they need. In a positive feedback loop, the Personal Advisory Board™ does this, by assisting women in their…

1. Achievement of business goals, which increases…

2.   Confidence, which improves…

3.   Performance, which enhances…

4.   Visibility, which attracts…

5.   Sponsorship, which increases…

6.   Promotions, which generates…

7.   More women in C suites and on Boards, who provide…

8.   Support for junior women, which assists them in their…

9.  Achievement of business goals—beginning the feedback loop again.

It’s a structure in which everybody wins. The advisors develop themselves as leaders. The advisees gain confidence from meeting their goals, they become recognized for their work, and they win promotions. The companies benefit by increasing retention and improving financial performance as more women move to fill top executive positions. The national and global economy benefits by having more women participating in the workforce.

Using a Personal Advisory Board™ built on social networking as a basis for mentoring and leadership development is an idea whose time has come. Women represent a majority of entrepreneurs in the US yet receive only 4.2% of all the capital given by investors to start-ups. It is time for women to receive the resources they need—to lead their companies, their institutions, and their governments. In the words of Hillary Clinton, “By harnessing the economic potential of all women, we boost opportunity for all people. And we boost the economies of all our nations.”

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