The Value of Networking – Beyond the Quota

networkingBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

While visiting Norway last month, it became obvious that the country’s push for gender equality is about more than regulation, like quotas or parental leave legislation. In fact, various organizations outside the government work hard, with both women and men, to improve gender parity.

For example, in order to better prepare women for leadership positions in the financial services, one organization, Futura, has created a unique networking-mentoring program to guide women as they build their leadership skills. The organization believes that putting women in the leadership pipeline is just as important as the law requiring women to fill 40% of board positions in publicly traded companies – and will ultimately improve business performance in the future.

Formed in 2006, Futura pairs high performing women (“Talents”) in Norway’s financial services industry with senior leaders (“Agents”) in the field (not necessarily at their own company), based on interviews and psychological surveys. The women work closely with the Agents to solve problems and gain leadership skills, and benefit from the networking opportunities afforded by “being taken under someone’s wing.”

And it seems to be working. According to the program, “34% have gained positions at a higher organizational level, 53% have more responsibility for personnel, 45% have more budget responsibility, and 50% have greater operational responsibilities than before entering the program.” Keep in mind, the program is only 4 years old – for roughly half of these women to have been promoted already speaks to the value of organized networking – and the give and take relationships fostered by the program.

Focus on Organizational Efficiency

Anne Grethe Solberg, senior consultant from Gender Consulting, who is involved with Futura, explained that the program’s success lies in its focus on improving organizational efficiency – it is not simply about developing women leaders. She said:

Its efficiency lies in that we do not address this as a program “for women,” but as a program that will give efficient gender balance in the organization. …The focus lies on how to develop the organization and efficient leadership.

Additionally, Solberg explained, the Agent/Talent relationship is more complex than that of a mentor and mentee. She said:

What makes Futura unique is the [focus] on dialogue, experience and interactions, both in the seminars and in the Talent/Agent relations. The Agent is definitely not a mentor that tells the Talent how to behave; it is the opposite – it is the Talent that is coaching the Agent. The Agent is a top manager with a strategy problem of another kind, that the Talent [works to solve]. In that way the Talent has to consider and evaluate criteria to make decisions on much higher level than her operative level. The Talent gets a much deeper insight in organizational dilemmas. And it is the Talent’s strategic abilities, competence and terminology that drive her in her next job position with larger responsibilities.

She continued, “We demand change and development from the Agent as much as the Talent.”

Why Futura and Programs Like It are Necessary

Hilde Elisabeth Johansen, senior consultant in Finance Norway, one of the organizations behind Futura explained that the program is especially valuable to for the financial services industry. She said, “The financial industry aims at being an attractive employer. I would say that the industry has gradually become aware of the fact that it is necessary to implement a special development program.”

Johansen cited the problem solving component – and a financial contribution on the part of the companies involved – as a major reason for the organization’s success. “Futura is designed for the finance industry, which means that the program includes actual challenges that the industry faces today – it is highly relevant. The talents and the agents have a strong commitment to participate in the program, and this commitment also includes the companies involved.”

And even though Norway is one of the leading countries for gender equality (recently ranking number two for gender parity on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report), Johansen said there is still plenty of work to be done.

She explained, “The great majorities of top managers are still men, and it will still be many years before we have full gender balance in the managerial positions in the finance industry. Therefore Futura will still be a useful tool.”

And, Johansen added, the program’s Alumni network is also a valuable tool for those who have participated in the program. “In the long run, Alumni, which is a closed membership network and an annual meeting point for current and previous talents and agents, will keep the network alive, develop it and contribute to Futura’s visibility.”

Editor’s Note: The FTC (and our own journalistic integrity) requires us to explain that our trip to Norway was funded by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York.