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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 have learned so much from these outstanding leaders and friends: the importance of standing up for your valuesnot being afraid to have difficult conversations in a respectful way and having the courage to make big changes.
One of the women was trying to decide if she should quit her job at an established company after many successful years. She was at a crossroads and needed advice. We discussed it and by the end of the night she had a plan.
OUR support systems can be an inexhaustible source of strength. Having a safe space to have candid conversations – to share our experiences and learn from each other – can make all the difference.
Several times in my career, I have felt like a fish out of water as the single woman in council meetings. It took time, priorities and investments to build a support network. But today, I’m 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’m doing the same for them. .
Here’s what I learned about how to find and support my community.
Be open to possibilities
Professional relationships can arise from anywhere. Take the waitress who served us dinner that night. Overhearing snippets of our conversation, she told us she was a freshman communications student at the local university. This young woman had a lot of energy, enthusiasm and dynamism. I gave him my card. I would 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 have an impact we never imagined.
Listen and learn
Build on the relationships you’ve already made, whether through extracurricular activities, charity, career, family, or friends. They are trusted people who have already invested in you. Ask them how they overcame challenges, found mentors, and built circles of trust. There are always lessons to be learned.
Be thoughtful and authentic
In a world of endless opportunities, it’s important to set your goals. What do you want to achieve with and through your network? Create goals that can evolve as you learn and grow.
It is equally important to be intentional in your approach to build relationships. Think about the company you choose to keep, how you foster trust, and your willingness to be open. The most reliable people in my network got me through some very choppy waters. If I hadn’t let them in, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Develop a diverse network
Look around your circle and see who is missing. Then take action to build a richer and more inclusive network. Engage 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 ability to add value. Think about the impact various sales teams and multidisciplinary research units have to tackle some of the greatest challenges we face as a planet. Seeking different points of view is a powerful way to learn, grow, and achieve results, whatever the goal.
For example, Invest Ottawa works with dozens of partners each year to organize “International Women’s Week”, an initiative that has turned into a month of activities. Our common objective: to provide the current and future women leaders from all walks of life. It brings together allies, partners, champions, women, men and non-binary individuals to connect, listen and learn from each other to create opportunities that advance female leaders. Everyone is welcome. We still have a long way to go, but step by step it is bringing about meaningful change in our community. And that impact is the result of collaboration between a diverse and engaged mix of people.
Continue warm introductions
Do you see a gap in your own learning? Ask everyone in your circle if they know anyone who can help with this and if they can introduce you. Very few people refuse a respectful request for a virtual cafe. You may have to work with their busy schedule, but most great leaders say yes. And when they do, be sure to do your research and be clear about what you’re aiming to achieve. This will help ensure an effective discussion and plant the seeds of a strong relationship.
Draw your own path
Once you’ve created a strong network of mentors and leaders, it’s sometimes easy to get swayed by their vision and lose sight of yours. How do you want to contribute to the world? What does success mean to you? Take the time to decide if their advice is right for you. If not, it’s OK. You can always put it away for future review or explore how it might help someone else around you.
Over the years, many people have encouraged me to pursue sales. “You are so charismatic”, they say. “You leave money on the table!” I have many friends who are brilliant salespeople; I know this is not the right path for me. I like to chase public and private investments that stimulate innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. This passion has allowed me to help secure hundreds of millions of dollars for and with many large organizations.
Don’t be afraid to chart your own path to success. If you know what motivates you, you can take advantage of the advice 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 an engaged team and community.
Career victories should always be celebrated, but I’m sure my stumbles would be far more precious to the young woman I met at the restaurant. After talking to me, I hope she knows pivots offer some of the greatest lessons life has to offer. And that when she meets her own challenges, she will pick herself up and her network will be there to support her.