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I recently had dinner with two women I’ve known for years. They’re both accomplished leaders with decades of experience in their respective fields. I’ve learned so much from these exceptional leaders and friends: the importance of standing up for your values, being unafraid to have difficult conversations in a respectful way and having the courage to make big changes.
One of the women was trying to decide whether she should walk away from her job at a well-established company after many successful years. She was at a crossroads and needed advice. We talked it through and by the end of the night, she had a plan.
Our support systems can be a boundless source of strength. Having a safe space to have frank conversations — to share our experiences and learn from each other — can make all the difference.
Many times in my career, I’ve felt like a fish out of water as the lone woman in boardroom meetings. It took time, prioritization and investment to build a supportive network. But today, I am surrounded by collaborators, mentors and allies who encourage me to take on the next big thing, challenge my thinking and catalyze new ideas — and I do the same for them.
Here’s what I’ve learned about finding and supporting my community.
Be open to possibilities
Professional relationships can spring from anywhere. Take the waitress who served us dinner that night. Overhearing snippets of our conversation, she told us she was a first-year communications student at the local university. This young woman had great energy, enthusiasm and drive. I gave her my card. I’d love to hire her in a co-op position when she is ready because I know I could learn from her, too.
Look for those bright sparks and unexpected opportunities. If we are open to these possibilities, it can lead to impact we never imagined.
Related: Don’t Cling Too Tightly to Your Goals. The Greatest Opportunities Are Often Unexpected.
Listen and learn
Lean into the relationships you have already established, whether through extracurricular activities, charitable work, your career, family or friends. These are people you trust who have already invested in you. Ask them how they have overcome challenges, found mentors and built circles of trust. There are always lessons that can be gleaned.
Be thoughtful and authentic
In a world of endless opportunities, it’s important to define your goals. What do you aim to achieve with, and through, your network? Create objectives that can evolve as you learn and grow.
It’s equally important to be intentional in your approach to building relationships. Reflect on the company you choose to keep, how you foster trust, as well as your willingness to be open. The most trusted people in my network have helped me through some very rough waters. If I hadn’t let them in, I would not be who I am today.
Develop a diverse network
Look across your circle and see who is missing. Then take steps to build a richer and more inclusive network. Participate in new activities, ask questions and be curious and open to different perspectives. If we only surround ourselves with like-minded people who share the same lived experience, we limit our growth and the opportunity to add value. Think of the impact that diverse business teams and multidisciplinary research units are having in tackling some of the greatest challenges we face as a planet. Seeking out different viewpoints is a powerful way to learn, grow and achieve results — no matter what the goal.
For example, Invest Ottawa works with dozens of partners every year to host International Women’s “Week,” an initiative that has grown into a month of activities. Our shared goal: to empower current and future women leaders from every walk of life. It brings together allies, partners, champions, women, men and nonbinary individuals to connect, listen and learn from each other to create opportunities that advance women leaders. Everyone is welcome. We have a long way to go, but step by step, it’s driving meaningful change in our community. And that impact is a result of the collaboration among a committed and diverse mix of people.
Related: 8 Ways To Empower the Next Generation of Women Leaders
Pursue warm introductions
See a gap in your own learning? Ask everyone in your circle if they know someone who can help address it and if they can provide an introduction. Very few people turn down a respectful request for virtual coffee. You might have to work with their crammed schedule, but most great leaders say yes. And when they do, be sure to do your research and be clear about what you aim to achieve. This will help ensure an effective discussion and plant the seeds for a strong relationship.
Chart your own path
Once you’ve created a strong network of mentors and leaders, sometimes it’s easy to become swayed by their vision and lose sight of your own. How do you want to contribute to the world? What does success mean to you? Take the time to decide if their advice makes sense for you. If not, that is OK. You can always tuck it away for future consideration or explore how it could help someone else in your circle.
Over the years, many people have encouraged me to pursue sales. “You’re so charismatic,” they say. “You’re leaving money on the table!” I have many friends who are brilliant sales leaders; I know this isn’t the right path for me. I love to chase public and private investment that drives innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. That passion has enabled me to help secure hundreds of millions of dollars for, and with, many great organizations.
Don’t be afraid to chart your own path to success. If you know what drives you, you can leverage the advice that’s most relevant to you. Today, I help lead an economic development agency where I can pursue bold ideas to create economic and societal impact with a committed team and community.
The most powerful relationships are founded on mutual respect and values. The best mentors want to learn from you, too. They won’t shy away from sharing their struggles as you share yours.
Career wins should always be celebrated, but I’m certain my stumbles would be far more valuable to the young woman I met at the restaurant. After chatting with me, I’m hoping she knows that pivots offer some of the greatest lessons life has to offer. And that when she encounters challenges of her own, she’ll pick herself back up — and her network will be there to support her.