This post was sponsored by IPS Learning.
Sometimes the best ideas come from a chance conversation. A chance conversation that Mary Simpkins had last year is what set her off on a journey to develop WiSE: Women in Strategic Execution.
The Strategic Execution Conference was held for the first time last year and next month sees senior and rising leaders converging on Silicon Valley for the 2014 event. It’s a conference that is hosted by the Stanford Advanced Project Management (SAPM) program. It focuses on bringing together executives with 10-20 years’ experience to review the latest Stanford research and discuss how to help teams understand strategy and to execute against it.
For many businesses, projects are the way that strategy becomes reality so the conference attracts senior people in project, program and portfolio management. Given that it’s held in Silicon Valley, California, most of them come from technology firms. And most of them are men.
“We were talking about the women who participate in technology networking groups,” says Mary Simpkins, VP Global Marketing at IPS Learning which delivers the Stanford Advanced Project Management program to businesses. Mary had noticed a difference between the existing ‘women in technology’ networking groups which were aimed at women at the start of their careers and the women on her courses who were typically senior managers. There was a need, she realised, for a group that met the needs of those women too.
“The numbers of women in project management in tech industries is small and there is an even smaller leadership group,” she says. “These are women who are stepping out of project and program management, technology and engineering and becoming leaders. They see the strategic big picture and their role is to execute against it and take action.”
Targeting leaders and future leaders
It might be small but it’s a significant and enthusiastic leadership group, as Mary has since found out. Once she started discussing her ideas for a network of senior women she found that lots of companies came forward in support.
“I had lunch with the President of PepsiCo,” Mary says. “We talked about young adults and young women in particular, who are dazzled by the idea of working at companies like Apple and Google, too often overlooking more traditional companies like PepsiCo, though they are often just as innovative, though in different ways. He wants to change that. As a business, PepsiCo is getting more involved with potential employees at all levels.” She also talks about discussions with HP, Nationwide and other companies who are hiring: they all want rock stars and to increase their levels of diversity in senior posts. “I’m pleasantly surprised at this point with the amount of support we’ve had,” Mary says.
The 2014 Strategic Execution conference is the launch pad for WiSE. Mary is hosting a lunch for female delegates and speakers to introduce the network and explain the story. Then women from HP, Cisco and the Environmental Defense Fund will share their experiences.
Mary plans to attract two different groups. First, those senior female leaders who are mature in their career and experienced in delivering strategic projects. “They understand strategic goals and how to make goals happen through alignment, teams and projects,” says Mary. “They may not always have a seat at the highest level when it comes to putting the strategy together but they influence that strategy and help others connect the dots.”
The other group that Mary wants WiSE to work with are the emerging leaders. “They are hungry for more,” she says. “They might have that entrepreneur attribute; they want to learn how businesses succeed so they will become the senior leaders of the next generation.”
A group that gives back
WiSE aims to be a very equal, collaborative platform for learning and networking. There’s no cost to the individual in this first year but they will be expected to sign up to giving something back to the community. This is what makes them different from other networking groups. “All members agree to give back to each other and to the community,” Mary explains. “There will be different opportunities each year.” As an example, community partnerships could be found with organisations that mentor pre-teen and teen girls in computing and technology. Given the links with the Environmental Defense Fund, sustainability projects are likely to be high on the agenda for future years.
What WiSE looks like in the future is something that hasn’t been defined yet. Mary doesn’t want to structure it without input from the members so the Strategic Execution conference will be the place for individual members to sign up and volunteer for committees. IPS and the SAPM program have agreed to host and support WiSE for the next year and then hopefully it can take flight as a professional network in its own right.
Mary is already talking about local and global meetings as well as capitalising on the links to the SAPM program. The faculty at Stanford already hand-pick interesting case studies and ask business leaders to come to campus to present them. WiSE will give them a greater pool of people to choose from and a way of linking an academic program to the real-world application of tools and theory. Then there are her industry connections. “WiSE is a way to support the pipeline of women entering senior leadership positions,” she says.
Mary has her day job, she program manages the Strategic Execution conference on top of that and she’s also added founding WiSE to her busy schedule. That’s a lot for anyone. “One of the reasons women are so good in this area is that our different wiring helps us excel at seeing the big picture and being able to drop into the detail quickly,” she says. “We’re able to switch that lens and see the big picture, then switch again when required, sometimes in a very short period of time.”
Mary is talking about the senior women she met who were the catalyst for her to set up WiSE. I think, however, that it’s a pretty good description of Mary herself. From seeing the big picture requirement for a network of female project, technical and engineering leaders to diving into the detail and organising everything down to the lunch menu, Mary has all the attributes that make her the perfect leader for this new initiative. I’m sure WiSE will take off with her at the helm and a group of next generation leaders will be very grateful for that chance conversation.