Why Relationships Matter: An Interview with Mentoring Expert, Dr. Rosina Racioppi of WOMEN Unlimited

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rosina Racioppi, the CEO and President of WOMEN Unlimited, an organization that for over 25 years has worked with hundreds of leading corporations who are focused on creating corporate cultures that nurture the development and advancement of talented women. Their 3-pronged approach of mentoring, education and networking allows […]

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Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rosina Racioppi, the CEO and President of WOMEN Unlimited, an organization that for over 25 years has worked with hundreds of leading corporations who are focused on creating corporate cultures that nurture the development and advancement of talented women.

Their 3-pronged approach of mentoring, education and networking allows corporations to prudently allocate their OD resources for the development of C-suite ready female talent.

Now, Dr. Rosina Racioppi is releasing her second book, Relationships Matter: How Women Use Developmental Networks to Step into Their Power and Influence. I sat down with Dr. Racioppi to learn more about her book and her tips on how women can excel in their careers.

First off, thank you for joining me! Now, please tell me about your book, “Relationships Matter…” what is the book about?

When we rely solely on our perspective and knowledge, we limit what we can accomplish. Early in my career, I was successful using my own skills, knowledge. I did not recognize the limitations and problems this approach was creating for me. Over time, I starting sensing resistance to my ideas and suggestions. Initially, I chalked it up to not being understood and attempted to clarify. This result was that I became frustrated and exhausted. When conducting research for “Women’s mentoring wisdom”, I heard similar comments from the women participants. They were frustrated that what got them to this career point, no longer seemed to be effective. Even more concerning, is that each woman shared this frustration was leading her to consider leaving her company.

Throughout my career in human resources and in the past 25 years at WOMEN Unlimited, I often hear from women that they feel their “work should speak” for them. Not comfortable with self advocating, this seems reasonable. Yet it leaves the interpretation of the work in someone’s hands. Which is a problem. Women’s intelligence and capabilities are not in question. There seems to be resistance to build key relationships as it somehow infers that we are less capable. I hear from women how they don’t feel comfortable asking for help. Often, women fail to understand how they are limiting themselves with this mindset. As business women, it is critical to create relationships that expand our perspective and understanding.

Relationships matter because they help expand our world view. When I work with people who are drastically different, I gain insight into how they think. This insight, when added to my perspective, provides insight that helps present ideas more effectively. This is because I better understand how to position them to be heard. We interviewed 10 leaders and heard their stories on the relationships that shaped their development and provided them support. While there are similar themes that came out these interviews, each person’s experience was unique to their journey. The commonality is that they valued relationships and understood that they made a difference.

Relationships Matter provides a roadmap to creating strategic relationships. You will hear stories from thought leaders, senior female and male leaders as well as women who are rising stars in their organizations.

Why did you decide to write the book now?

I wanted to provide a resource for people to understand why relationships are so important. While the book is written for women primarily, the ideas and insights shared can be helpful to anyone seeking to learn how to effectively grow their career. Our hope is to help women gain insight on actions they can take. We also want to clarify some of the confusing messages that women receive. Women are told mentors are critical in one breath and then in the next breath are told that sponsors matter, not mentors. They are told networking is important but are not provided any guidance.

Because of the increasing intensity of our work environments coupled with demands at home, women tend to focus on their work and may not fully embrace the importance of relationships. For the first time, women are the majority of the workforce. Yet, they are underrepresented in senior leadership and critical roles. There are a myriad of reasons why this is the case, but the only one that women can control is themselves. It is our hope that “Relationships Matter” provides women with ways they can identify relationships that are critical for their success.

You talk about unwelcome feedback being transformative to one’s career — can you please elaborate?

When someone says, “May I give you some feedback?”, we often cringe as we think the worst is coming. The saying ‘feedback is a gift’, is true because it helps us understand how others see us. Does it align with your view of yourself? Is it better? Worse? The term “unwelcome” is interesting to me as it infers that feedback will be bad or hurtful. When I was young, I took dance classes at a local studio. As I got older, I attended a professional dance studio. For the entire class, the teacher told me (actually quite loudly) all that I was doing wrong. This was non stop for the entire class. While I never became a professional dancer, I learned a valuable lesson. The teacher was telling me things I needed to know to improve my technique. His guidance helped me improve as it highlighted areas I did not know I needed to change. I never thought of it as good or bad. It was a necessary part of learning. This experience helped me be comfortable with hearing feedback when it was unfavorable. It helped me avoid getting defensive, assess the feedback and determine what to do.

In fact, a single piece of feedback transformed my view of how others were seeing me. It also showed me what others needed from me to understand my value in the organization where I worked. I was lucky to get this pivotal piece of feedback early in my career. Actually, I was lucky to get this piece of feedback at all — because women rarely get the feedback they need. I was the youngest person on the management team and the only woman. I was focused on “the work.” When a senior leader shared that “everyone thinks they could do my job,” it stopped me in my tracks. My immediate reaction was not positive. Luckily, my immediate next thought made all the difference. His feedback helped me see that I needed to adjust how I was showing up, how I shared my point of view and my understanding of how I impacted the business.

The book addresses building a network for career success, what’s the best advice you have for developing a network?

Think strategically. Networking is not just connecting with people. It is about developing relationships with people who help you fill in the gaps in your perspectives and knowledge. When new to an organizations, building relationships with key individuals, outside your function or department, helps inform your understanding of how the organization works, how decisions are made, who are the most influential leaders, etc.

It is helpful to reflect on your development as well. Are there specific areas you are seeking to grow, and, if so, who can help you learn and grow? If you are seeking to learn how to have a more effective organizational presence, identify who that has that capability. Reach out to them and inquire how they developed their skills.

We recommend that women create a networking map to identify areas they are seeking to gain more information or insight. Creating a map allows us to identify areas that support their role and growth such as areas of the business, knowledge of function areas or is there a communication style that presents a unique challenge. One gentleman who mentored in our program would ask the women he mentored to review their organizational chart and assess what the leaders know about them. This exercise helps the women create strategies to ensure leaders have the insight about them that aligned with their career aspirations. By asking them to assess what these leaders knew about them, they were able to identify how that supported their goals and what they really needed to know. This helped them create an effective approach.

What is your definition of a mentor?

Mentors are learning partners they help turn learning into leadership. The mentor conversations are where the learning occurs. When mentors asks questions, it causes their mentees to reflect on the situation and assess next steps.

How do you decide who should be a mentor in your network?

We encourage women to start with identifying the focus for their development. With that focus, consider who would provide the most helpful guidance. It is not necessary that mentors have the same backgrounds as you. In fact, I suggest that you look for individuals who are different (function, gender, race). These differences in backgrounds result in greater learning. The one attribute to look for in a mentor is someone who is curious. Curious leaders ask questions and create learning.

How important is visibility to career growth?

The founder of WOMEN Unlimited, Jean Otte, would say “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows what you know.” Visibility is very important. We often hear from women in our programs that they don’t feel comfortable promoting themselves and prefer to let their work speak for them. Jack Yurish, Jean’s mentor, reminds women that everyone does good work but that is insufficient to advance.

When women rely on their work to speak for them, leaders do not have sufficient information regarding them to give them opportunities to advance. I like to remind women that every leader needs to understand the resources available to them to solve the organizations challenges and objectives. If leaders do not know you, how can they “put you in the game.” Visibility is more than face time. It is about being intentional about how you show up in all engagements. When you are in a meeting, consider what you need the other attendees to know about you. This is especially important when the other attendees are senior leaders. Before the meeting, reflect on what contributions you can make, what questions you have and how this reinforce your brand. Yes visibility is important and it must be strategic.

You mention in your book that women don’t often step up and advocate for themselves at work. Why do you feel women hide?

I am not certain all women hide but do see that women often don’t understand how to play the game. We hear from women how they don’t like to play the game. When I hear this, I remind women that when they accepted the job with their company, the in essence joined the team. Deciding not to play the game is like sitting in the middle of the soccer field — you are in the way of the other players.

The challenge for women is that no one gives us the play book of the unwritten rules. With most organizations created and led by men, women may not fully understand how to navigate their company effectively. This lack of comfort with the rules of the game and discomfort with self promotion results in the perception that women are hiding.

Women whose managers or mentors help them understand the rules and how to position themselves gain more visibility.

What’s the biggest takeaway from your book?

Relationships Matter! They are essential for women to be successful. No matter how smart she is, she is limited by her own perspective. She can expand her impact (for herself and her business).

What does the future of women in the C-suite look like?

For the first time this year, women are the majority of the workforce. Organizations are increasingly aware that they need to have more women advance. The hard work is in creating organizations that provide an environment where women can grow. Diversity is bringing different people into key roles. Inclusion is when organizations create an environment where everyone feels valued.

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