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Women's Networking Comes From the Top at Lehman

April 20, 2007
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Retention, Featured Article
Four weeks into her new position at Lehman Bros., Melissa Eisenstat received an e-mail she will never forget.

    It told her of a lecture presented by Lehman’s networking program for women employees, Women’s Initiatives Leading Lehman, or WILL. The speaker was an infertility specialist from New York University Hospital.

    "I called my friend and said, ‘You aren’t going to believe what I just got,’ " she recalls. She joked with her friend that some companies would take the list of women who signed up "and then show them the door."

    Eisenstat, who had been a head equity analyst at CIBC, had just re-entered the workforce after a two-year break, during which she turned her hobby, playing the cello, into a full-time career. (Eisenstat still plays the cello during her free time and believes it helps her work in a team environment and hones her sense of discipline in the business world.)

    Even though Eisenstat had participated in Lehman’s Encore program, which was set up to assist women re-entering the workforce, the e-mail proved to her that all the talk about the company wanting to be female-friendly wasn’t just lip service, she says.

    "Women’s networks" are usually HR’s way of making sure companies appear sensitive to women’s needs, experts say. But at New York-based Lehman, it was former chief administrative officer and current president Joseph Gregory who set the mandate for WILL. He was concerned that Lehman wasn’t doing enough to attract and retain women.

    Anne Erni, managing director and chief diversity officer at Lehman, recalls the conference call five years ago in which Gregory set the mandate for the program. "I remember him pounding his fist on the desk and saying, ‘Men run in packs; women don’t. Go create your pack.’ "

    One of the purposes of the pack Erni helped create is to bring women together and support them in their careers, she says. That can be tough at a company like Lehman, which has U.S. offices spread across 40 locations.

    Nevertheless, Erni and her colleagues set to work, and on June 11, 2002, WILL debuted with an event at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. It drew 1,200 women from Lehman’s various offices and marked the first time the company brought together its female employees from throughout the country, Erni says.

    With 3,000 members today, WILL has been broken into three groups: recruiting, networking and personal development. The recruiting group includes women who return to their alma maters to recruit young women to the company. In the summers they hold events for interns. The second group specializes in networking with female clients. And the third group puts together personal development events for women employees, such as hosting speakers like New York Times writer Lisa Belkin, who covers work/life issues. Altogether last year, WILL’s groups put on 166 events.

    The network is so popular that subgroups have popped up, Erni says. "Women felt that they wanted to get to know other women within their divisions," she says. There is now a junior WILL in each of Lehman’s six divisions.

    To gauge the success of the program, Lehman surveys its members, Erni says. In the most recent survey, 97 percent of respondents said WILL helps them build relationships internally, while 87 percent say it helps increase their understanding of the company.

    But what has made the program such a success is the management buy-in, Erni says. "That’s very unique," she says.

    The challenge for Lehman and other big firms that have established networks for minorities and women is avoiding a "silo effect," says Janet Hanson, who worked with Lehman to recruit and retain women and is also founder of 85 Broads, a network of 17,000 Wall Street women.

    It’s great to give women a venue to come together, but companies need to be careful that in creating networks, they aren’t making minorities and women feel removed from the leadership within the company, Hanson says. "It’s like I asked Joe Gregory: ‘Where is the white guys’ network? Why can’t I be part of that?’ "

Workforce Management, April 9, 2007, p. 24 -- Subscribe Now!

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