Women Gurus Network

Ten world-class women thinkers, speakers, and writers banded together into the Women Gurus Network to provide a resource for improving your organization's performance. Through consultations, conferences, keynote speeches, or other, the Women Gurus leverage years of experience gleaned in corporate boardrooms and enclaves of governmental power. The members of the Women Gurus Network are some of the world's most recognized and accomplished experts in the areas of leadership, marketing, networking, gender issues, strategy, communication, and more. In our Cool Friends interview below, Erik Hansen speaks with Sally Helgesen, Marti Barletta, and Susan Willett Bird about the Women Gurus Network.

Sally Helgesen, Marti Barletta, and Susan Willett Bird

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen's bestselling book, The Female Advantage, is widely hailed as "the classic work" on women's leadership styles. She was the first writer to focus on what women have to contribute to organizations. She is a speaker, coach, and consultant who works with organizations interested in attracting, retaining, and developing terrific women. Sally is a Cool Friend (twice!), with whom we discussed her books The Web of Inclusion in December 2004 and Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work in March 2002. She has delivered seminars, keynotes, and workshops at hundreds of the world's leading corporations, partnership firms, universities and non-profits, and she has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and at Smith College.

Marti Barletta

Marti Barletta is the author of Marketing to Women, and she holds the distinction of being the only author who's coauthored a book with Tom since 1985. Their book is Trends, one of the Essentials Series published in July 2005. Marti is a recognized authority on boosting results of marketing, sales, and recruitment through better communications with women. Her third book, PrimeTime Women, featuring a new focus on the golden bulls-eye of target marketing: women aged 50–70, was released in January 2007. She is the CEO/Founder of The TrendSight Group, a consultancy specializing in marketing to women. She became one of our Cool Friends in December 2004.

Susan Willett Bird

Susan Willett Bird, Esq., is Founder and CEO of Wf360, LLC, the company that created Brandversation™, the word-of-mouth marketing tool used by blue-chip clients like IBM, Maytag, Walmart, DuPont, Starbucks, and the New York Stock Exchange, among others. Susan is the creative force behind MainEvent®, the annual global exchange among world-class business and thought leaders, and has a patent pending on Wf360's Leading Questions™, a word-of-mouth tool used by companies to jump-start creative problem-solving among employees and customers. She wrote Smart Talk: The ABCs of Authentic Conversation, and she's been a Cool Friend since March 2001. Recognized as a global expert on experiential marketing, Susan is a frequent speaker and consultant on that subject, which she describes as the most powerful employee- and customer-engaging tool on the planet.

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tompeters.com asks ...

What is the Women Gurus Network?

SALLY: The Women Gurus Network is a network of women who are world-class experts in a variety of business segments, who have come together in order to share expertise and knowledge to help one another gain greater visibility. We also intend to serve as a resource for people in the media looking for insights from women who have expertise in areas relating to business and the workplace.

SUSAN: We also join forces on occasion to provide a kind of brain trust—consultative expertise for companies who want help shedding light in a fresh, new way on issues of importance to them.

And there are ten of you. Why the need for this? You're all operating as individual gurus out there in the world. What's the benefit of the consortium?

SALLY: The original idea was actually generated at a Tom Peters event in Manchester, Vermont, a couple of years ago. The three of us were there, as well as Robyn Waters, who is also a member of the network [and our recent Cool Friend]. It frustrated us that we still heard organizations and associations saying it was hard to find world-class women speakers who were experts in a subject, real speakers of content. When you questioned these folks, they would say, "Well, we can't find any women of that caliber."

This is ridiculous, because we knew what we ourselves and each other had to contribute to the conversation. At that time, at that event, we had a discussion about finding a way of banding together in order to make the point that we were here, we weren't going away. We have world-class expertise and knowledge in our various subject areas.

As I was driving home, I thought to myself, "That was a great conversation—it's a terrific idea. But, if I don't take the lead on this, I don't know if anything is going to happen." It's not really a profit-making model. It's more about supporting one another's individual visibility and providing a resource together.

The name, Women Gurus Network, floated in my mind. I got home, secured the domain name, and began the first process of linking us together. And then creating a website, which is in a fairly bare-bones state at this point. In January of this year we had our first retreat, where the group came together and really had a chance to see the level that we were working on and look at ways in which we could move forward.

So all ten of you got together?

SALLY: Eight of the ten.

And what came out of that? Is there a mission statement? Is there some motivating force that came out of the gathering?

SUSAN: We realized there are two aspects to what we're trying to do. One is that we all realized that we were being asked the same question every time we gave a speech, which was, "It's too bad there aren't more women like you, because we'd like to hire somebody else with similar expertise." The second thing we'd noticed was that in companies where any one of us shared expertise on a consultative basis, people would say, "You know, it would be really great if there were several people who thought the way you do, especially if it would expand our exposure to the kind of insight and perspective that comes from women." Not on gender issues so much, but rather core business issues.

When we got together we decided that this second aspect added another level to our network beyond providing outstanding speakers, namely the brain trust concept.

Do you talk about the Women Gurus Network when you speak at conferences?

SUSAN: I did tonight to 500 French people. They said there's nothing like that in France. To which I replied, "Well, as usual, we're about five years ahead of you guys."

SALLY: I had the same experience in Deauville when I was there. I always mention it when I speak.

SUSAN: Tonight, the Deauville program was mentioned. I said, "Well, one of our women gurus was at Deauville as a speaker." You know, we're going to be global faster than you think.

What's the significance of Deauville?

SALLY: It's called The Women's Forum Group, and it was taking place in Deauville, France.

SUSAN: It was a huge event that was really an offshoot of Davos for some of the people who had been part of the World Economic Forum. This was the second year of a major conference called the Global Forum on Women, Society, and the Economy.

Are you going to be laboring under the question of "Why do these women have to band together?" Are people going to see Women Gurus Network and think, "Oh, they're just going to be dealing with gender issues."

MARTI: They might. But, there are people right now who are looking for someone who can speak on X, let's say it's new marketing techniques, and they're especially interested in a woman because they've got three other speakers on other topics. And they'd just like a mix.

So by our banding together, it makes it easier for them to find us.

SALLY: That's what I feel very strongly. We're not gurus on women's topics. We're women who are gurus. We each have our area of expertise, which in different cases may or may not relate specifically to women; it usually doesn't.

Now, there are ten of you, which seems like a nice round number. Sally, I think you mentioned once that you weren't going to have more than ten individuals involved.

SALLY: What we decided was that we weren't going to expand the network at all for at least one year, possibly two, until—

MARTI: Until we get our site up. Until we crystallize as an organization and explore all the different ways that we can be of help to each other and of service to the business community.

SALLY: Exactly. So that's the idea. By the way, I have received many calls from people who have found me over the Internet who want to join.

MARTI: There is, among other women, a great deal of interest here. One of the things that we believe would make this group more valuable is that there might be a qualification process, so that everybody in the group would be of a certain caliber. That's another thing that we have to sort out before we're ready to expand the group.

There's no president or leader of this network at this point?

MARTI: Not officially, but Sally has served in that role. She was the founder. She has been the core of this. Because so much originated in her vision, she has been gracious enough to really have the leadership role in the group.

SALLY: What we're going to look at in the future is something that is modeled on the learning network that I'm part of—that was started by Marshall Goldsmith. What we've done there is have rotations where we have one or two people take the lead for a year and then rotate out.

Now, do you all know each other well? Clearly you didn't.

SALLY: [laughter] No. That was one of the reasons it took awhile to get together. I knew eight of the ten people. I invited them. Two I only knew through reputation. Margaret Heffernan being an example. But, I had not actually met her.

The parameters were clearly demonstrable expertise in one particular area, of owning that terrain.

MARTI: We don't overlap too much. In other words, we don't have people who are working in the same area in this group, because we wanted everybody to be able to share with complete openness, which we all did.

Now that raises a question I wanted to ask since you aren't overlapping—but you do cover areas such as women's leadership, marketing to women, gender communications, work/life balance, employee engagement and retention, entrepreneurship. Are there any big holes in what organizations might look for from a consulting guru that you see as a gap in what you're offering?

SALLY: I would say the two areas where we have gaps are finance and technology. And when we expand, those will be the areas that we address, people who have expertise in those areas.

What have you learned so far?

MARTI: I think one of the things that we learned was that many of us have the same issues as we're building our businesses. We learned an immense amount from each other at our inaugural meeting.

I got tons of ideas on things that I could do to strengthen my business. I hope I contributed a few of my own. So, that was the first thing we learned.

SALLY: Yes, exactly. One of the goals was to help each other build our careers with concrete advice. On specific issues. We spent, for example, at that first meeting, a lot of time focusing on Bev Kaye, who has been extremely successful introducing products over recent years. That was a subject of great interest to all of us. Pricing, engagements abroad, reaching global audiences, videotapes, those kinds of things were on the list of things to talk about.

MARTI: Interestingly, one of the things we found was that four of our ten members had released new books in January. So, one of our opportunities is in terms of supporting each other by promoting each other. For example, in the acknowledgements of my new book, Prime Time Women, I have an acknowledgement where I thank each one of my fellow members of the Women Gurus Network.

And we support each other by writing reviews at the online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. That helps to bring visibility to each other's work.

And you'll be blogging about each other's work?

MARTI: We already have been. I wrote about our inaugural meeting in my newsletter, and it got quite a nice response from my fairly modest newsletter list.

SALLY: Yes, it's a real kind of bootstrap thing and learning by doing. We're all at a certain point in our careers in terms of really having a lot of individual visibility and respect, and having figured it out on our own. So part of our interest now is in sharing that with one another. And creating a kind of model for how to do this in an ongoing and organized fashion.

One of the things that struck me about it is the fact that I never go to any conference without getting the question, "Well, why don't women support each other more?" You know, somebody in the audience is always complaining about that, or has a story about it, or seems to feel that women are uniquely unsupportive of one another, or have some expectations in that arena.

I don't particularly agree with that point of view, but one of the things that was a goal for us was also trying to create a model or template of how women can go about offering real support and help to one another in a powerful, but perhaps less random and scattered way. Maybe a more deliberate or systematic way of doing that.

One of the things that I do when I get a lot of emails from people saying they want to be part of it, I say we're not open right now, but please start your own. Start something similar, whatever your area.

Well, along those lines, you're all—

SALLY: Old? Is that what you're trying to say?

I was going to say "well into your careers." But, I didn't think even that was going to sound quite right. Anyway, you're well established. Any thoughts about bringing in a next generation, like a mentoring program as part of this network?

SALLY: I think that would be a terrific thing once we get ourselves together. In fact, if we're going to really develop this technology area, which I think is imperative, we're probably not going to find many 57-year-olds sitting around with that area of expertise. So definitely, I think that that's something we'll be looking at.

MARTI: One of the things that we plan to do, recognizing that we just had our inaugural meeting in January, is that we got the first priority accomplished. We now understand much better each other's work, and we've already contributed ideas for each others' businesses, and we are developing ways that we can cross-promote for each other.

The second thing I think that Sally wanted to do as part of her vision for this group was to serve as a resource—for, I think, not only the press and the media, but also perhaps for speakers bureaus. Those speakers bureaus that are apparently finding it difficult to find high-content, high-caliber speakers who are women.

Are you going to reach out directly to speakers bureaus?

SALLY: I think that that will definitely be on the agenda.

MARTI: We'll develop some materials, either electronic or hard copy, when we do an outreach program to the top speakers bureaus, so that they are aware of the Women Gurus Network. We want them to see us as a resource when somebody says to them—which happens quite often—"Gosh, these are some great recommendations you have for us. But, don't you have any high-content women speakers?"

And we would like a little light bulb to go off over their heads where they say, "Of course we do," while they're tapping in the Women Gurus Network website on their computers.

SALLY: Exactly. You know, speaking at women's conferences is fine. Do those all the time. But, I think all of us have a desire to be not at the Linkage Women's Conference, but at the main Linkage event, GILD, the Global Institute for Leadership Development. You find almost no women speaking at those types of events.

MARTI: And when you do see women, I'm sorry to say, you get the impression you're seeing the "token" woman because there are seven men on the agenda, and then there's one woman. You're glad that they found a woman, but it's hard to believe that the organizers of the event looked hard for a real mix.

One thing occurs to me, the ten of you speaking together would be some kind of kick-ass conference right there. Have you thought about that?

SALLY: We have. We talked about it at length about a year ago. And Susan even talked about using some of the formatting that she did with the MainEvent, the program Tom has participated in. That's something that we're very, very interested in doing. The problem is finding the people to put it together. Some of us have a support staff. And we're working on creating a team that could do that kind of organizing, but it doesn't exist yet.

MARTI: I think one of the things that we'll build into our positioning as the Women Gurus Network is our ability to provide a valuable set of female perspectives on business and workplace.

I can tell you for a fact that four years ago, this kind of proposed mission, I believe, would have been, I won't say impossible, but it would have been much more difficult for people to accept. The work that I specialize in is marketing to women. I look into gender differences. Well, when my first book came out in 2003, despite the fact that reporters now call me and say, "Marti, everybody knows men and women are different." I say, "Hold the phone, you know, four years ago, one of the major reasons I wrote that book is that nobody in business felt comfortable acknowledging that there were differences between men and women." On the one hand, men were worried about inadvertently offending somebody. And my goodness, they'd just spent the last 30 years learning that women and men are equal, so that probably meant they're the same. Then, women were worried because if they were to say that women are different from men, were they going to be undoing 30 years of social progress?

All those worries were based on the concern that we would be basing our discussion about how women are different on the old stereotypes, which, of course, we're not. There have been enormous advances in understanding how women and men are different. Many of us in this group have played a major role, I think, in reframing the understanding in the business community of how women are different, and how to speak about the way women are different.

SALLY: So now we have the Women Gurus Network, and it is a legitimate and valuable thing to acknowledge that women have a different perspective than men in most areas—business and the workplace included. And so, while we don't focus on women's issues per se, having a women's perspective is part of what we can bring that you cannot get from a male expert. You can't. You will get more—well, I don't want to be so bold as to say more insight, but you will certainly get different insights from the Women Gurus Network than you would get from the same sort of network that was all male, which to date they have been.

I'm not quite sure if the word "gurus" came to me as I was driving back from Manchester, or whether we had talked about it when we had that first meeting in Manchester where Susan and Robyn and Marti and I got together. But, that was pretty much deliberately chosen. Because what we find is that the male colleagues who have a very high profile and have made a huge contribution in our world, such as Tom Peters, or Marshall Goldsmith, will always be talked of and acknowledged as gurus. That's how they're seen. You start as a consultant, and then finally being a guru is the top of the heap.

Women are never characterized in that way. So to name ourselves Women Gurus Network was deliberate in terms of choosing that as audacious branding.

Thank you.