Author is Rebecca Francis Ballard, Head of Communication+Culture and H+K HER steering committee member at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. This article was first published on LinkedIn.


March, Women’s History Month, is an ideal time to seek inspiration from stories of women making a difference in their organizations, companies and communities. Last March my colleagues and I used that inspiration as fuel for the launch of a new women’s network within Hill+Knowlton Strategies: H+K HER. The HER stands for Helping Executives Rise – a clever name that doubles as what we aimed to accomplish.

What we didn’t necessarily expect was for anyone outside of H+K to notice the program, which made it that much more exciting to be recognized this month as one of the Organizations of the Year for diversity in public relations by PR News as a result of H+K HER’s successful integration. It was a great way to celebrate our first anniversary.

With Women’s History Month drawing to a close, it’s a fitting time to share some of what we’ve learned. The factors from our “start-up” year that helped us set this solid foundation might provide practical inspiration to other organizations interested in launching a similar employee network.

Ground in data (planHER)

H+K HER grew from an organic desire from employees to engage in the popular conversation about “leaning in,” cracking glass ceilings, and whether work is working for today’s professionals. And we wanted to do that in a way that was both responsive to the trend, and also meaningful for the long-term. Our first step was to use research to pinpoint just how to do that. We used findings from internal focus groups, in-depth interviews and an employee survey to shape everything about the network – including whether one should even exist. The latter question was resolved overwhelmingly: 75 percent of our female employees were interested in a formal women’s network. The research identified a mentoring program and office-level gatherings as the most-desired platforms for support, and topics like presenting and negotiating as top of mind for network discussion, all of which we incorporated right from the start.

Drive organizational objectives (organizeHER)

Our greatest asset isn’t a product or a widget – it’s our people. And unlike a product or a widget, our greatest asset walks out the door at the end of every day. Making sure they come back helps us keep and win clients. We know this. We also know that if we stick to the industry average, 70 percent of the assets we need to retain are women. Setting objectives for H+K HER that reinforce broader business goals about attracting, developing and retaining top talent helps our business and our female employees. It also ensures that H+K HER and its benefits remain integral to the firm.

Build intentional connections (connectHER)

If we believe that invisible threads are the strongest ties, which is true according to Nietzsche and a bunch of people on Pinterest, then the fabric of our organizational culture is strengthened when we discover – or create – new connections with our colleagues. That’s why establishing connections became a core component of H+K HER. During the first year of our mentorHER mentoring program, we made 171 mentor/mentee pairings, the vast majority between women who had never crossed paths, and 98 percent of participants would recommend the program to a colleague. Through office-level gatherings with internal guest speakers, women were able to interact with female leaders they might not have otherwise met. And through connectHER online groups, we’ve created opportunities for H+Kers to find and connect with women and men at all levels of the company based on factors that would bring people together organically in person, such as shared experiences, common interests, or similar life stages. We’re intentionally connecting more and more women to each other, and it is strengthening our firm.

Encourage local fit (customizeHER)

Our 12 U.S. offices are quite different from one another, be it market, sectors worked, headcount, average employee age, seniority mixes and culture. With those variances come varied preferences for how the network can best support employee growth. In one office it may look like an in-office training, while another might look like an after work happy hour, and still another look like a service project for an organization that supports women in the community. In addition to a national-level steering committee for H+K HER, we have a dedicated H+K HER liaison in each office who makes HER come to life at the local level in a customized, tailored way.

Blaze the path (leadHER)

The last, but certainly not least, factor guiding our success is that the network and its activities enjoy commitment and support of leadership right from the top. Our Americas and U.S. CEOs are authentically committed to the program, and truly believe in its importance for staff as well as our bottom line. That commitment extends beyond the HER network to broader issues, like our H+K Inside and H+K Outside staff development programs that support employees in pursuit of work-life blend, and offering the industry’s leading parental leave policies that support both women and men. An engaged leadership team has allowed the company to walk the talk in a way that a mere affinity group could never hope to do.

During this first year we were proud to earn recognition for our efforts on gender programming and diversity. But one recognition does not a revolution make. As we look to year two and beyond, we are confident we have core building blocks in place that will give us cause to celebrate each March and every month to come.

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