Women For Action: Dr. Racioppi, you have held various executive positions in the corporate sector. Yet the WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. platform is quite different than the companies you’ve previously worked for. What led to this new path?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: In my previous corporate roles, I worked with business leaders to create employee development strategies that aligned with business objectives. As you can imagine, it was very exciting and rewarding. That’s where my passion to help people discover their unique talents and put them to work for their organizations got started. Throughout my career, I have witnessed women not actively managing their development. As a result, women do not enjoy the same career success as their male colleagues. WOMEN Unlimited provided me the opportunity to have a greater impact. Through WOMEN Unlimited, I partner with organizations, senior leaders and women who are committed to changing the corporate landscape.
Women For Action: In your bio and recent article, “Visibility, An Advancement Strategy Women Often Neglect” it stresses that women should consider mentorship in their corporate careers. What would you say to women who might feel that seasoned professional women are unwilling to share their knowledge and expertise with women being first introduced to their fields, which makes it difficult for women to find the proper guidance and counsel? Secondly, what should one be looking for in a mentor?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: I see senior women (and men) very active in mentoring the women in our WOMEN Unlimited development programs. My advice to young women: be very clear on how a mentor can be of help to you. I have seen women approach senior leaders and ask “Will you be my mentor?” The question is off-putting because it fails to provide the prospective mentor with any specifics on what the mentee is seeking.
In my research, women who gained the most from mentoring relationships first identified what they wanted from that relationship. They would approach senior leaders and ask for feedback (on a project or presentation). If the leader was open to providing it, they would then schedule a follow-up meeting. The women were gauging the leader’s willingness to be open and his or her interest in being a mentor. In many cases, the women did not ask directly “will you be my mentor”. The relationship naturally evolved. I also advise young women to not limit their sights to just senior women as potential mentors. They can learn as much from their male leaders.
What should one look for in a mentor? That depends largely on what the individual wants to gain from the relationship. If they want to have a greater understanding of the business, then they should identify someone who possesses that business knowledge. If they are seeking to develop their communication skills, they should look for those in their organization who model the skill they are seeking to develop. The key to an effective mentor relationship is for the woman, as the mentee, to “own” the relationship. When women can manage the relationship with intent, they can ask questions, and request feedback that supports their growth and development.
Women For Action: How does WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. differ in their approach to mentoring than to traditional methods?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: Traditionally, mentoring relationships are one-on-one, with organizations identifying senior leaders who will mentor junior associates. A lot of time and effort is invested in developing the proper process for a mentoring program – how mentors are identified, how often they meet, for how long, etc. While all these aspects are important, they often overlook the most important mentoring requirement: preparing mentors and mentees on how to have an effective relationship. As I mentioned before, an effective mentor relationship starts with women identifying what they require from their mentors. This focus ensures that mentees will gain the insight needed for their development. Without it, they may have interesting, but not very helpful, conversations with their mentors.
The Mentor Component in WOMEN Unlimited programs provides women with specific guidance on fostering mentor relationships that support their career development. The mentors are selected based on their experience, their skill and their ability to engage in conversations that support women’s growth and development. The women who participated in my research shared that their mentors asked powerful questions that helped them gain valuable insights. Those are the mentors we look for.
Women For Action: It seems that WOMEN Unlimited has a mission to nurture and develop top tier women talent. In the about section it states, “These programs continually attract the brightest and best corporations and individuals because our underlying strategy of combining mentoring, education and networking is a perfect fit for today’s highly complex global environment”. Would you say that this reiterates the message that women have to be twice as good to fit into today’s fast-paced competitive business environment which leaves them with greater insecurities?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: Absolutely not! Yet I do understand why women feel that they need to work twice as hard. I often hear from women (both emerging and senior level) that they are frustrated that their good work seems insufficient for advancement. The reality is that everyone needs to do good work. Technical merit will only take you so far. Through our development programs, women learn how to demonstrate to their organizations that they have leadership potential.
They discover what attributes they need to be seen as key members of the organization and how to develop and showcase those attributes.
Women For Action: How is WOMEN Unlimited dealing with cultural diversity in its programming?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: The women who participate in our programs have diverse backgrounds – functional, racial and cultural. Our programs provide a safe environment for women to gain an understanding and appreciation of differences, whatever those differences are. The women can then leverage that insight in dealing with individuals at all corporate levels.
In addition, to lead the activities in our programs, we identify women who are regionally relevant and who have a similar cultural background as our women participants. It’s important in every location we offer programs, from New York to Shanghai.
Women For Action: Was there anything instrumental that you learned through WOMEN Unlimited or even throughout your career that you wish you would have known a lot earlier on?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: The one lesson I wish I learned earlier was the importance of understanding other individual’s perspectives and knowledge. No matter how smart an individual may be, their knowledge is limited. Being curious about another’s perspective is crucial as we consider the pace of business today. It is impossible to know everything and it is vital to have relationships with individuals whose knowledge complements your own and fills in crucial gaps.
Women For Action: In your article, you stress that women often miss out on opportunities to promote themselves. In your opinion, what would be the number one strategy every career woman should adopt to make themselves more visible?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: I don’t believe there is just one strategy. It is essential for women to understand how their skills impact their organization. How do they create results for their business? For their customers? This view shapes how women communicate and interact with others and helps identify where they should focus their time and energy. Without this understanding, women often fall victim to feeling they must do everything. Women also need to understand how to exhibit executive presence. We often hear from the managers of women participating in our programs, that women have gained confidence. “Confidence” is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. I believe that as women gain understanding of how to use their skills to impact their business, they gain clarity on how their contributions make an impact. This clarity leads to increased confidence which, in turn, boosts their organizational presence.
Women For Action: WOMEN Unlimited partners and develops leaders for fortune 1000 corporations. How can nonprofit organizations become collaborators of the WOMEN Unlimited mission?
Dr. Rosina Racioppi: I am very proud that we have many women from nonprofit organizations participating in our programs. Since our very first program in New York over 21 years ago, we have reserved space in each program for a woman from a nonprofit organization.
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