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Reaching Farther Together

Women Presidents? Organization Provides a Forum for Growth
Sarah Morin

Sarah Morin says WPO has helped her work on her business, and not in her business.

Some members call it a support group, while others say it’s like having a board of directors. Some use both phrases interchangeably. They’re talking about the Springfield-area chapter of a group called the Women Presidents’ Organization, a three-year-old outfit that provides an effective forum for sharing ideas and helping businessiness — and individuals — grow.

Sarah Morin says she keeps pretty busy trekking between her two Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar franchises — in Hadley and Windsor, Conn. But she has some ambitious plans that will tax her time, and her vehicle, much further.

Indeed, she wants to have several more operations going in Southern New England within a few years, and is aggressively searching for attractive sites for the sports- and family-oriented restaurants. Managing the two she has while also drawing an outline for explosive growth is challenging, and she says she often found herself looking for what she called, alternately, a support group or informal board of directors to bounce things off and gain valuable insight.

She’s found one in the local chapter of the Women Presidents’ Organization, or WPO, which, as the name suggests, brings women business owners together to share ideas, concerns, issues, hopes, dreams, and more. The local group, the Springfield-area chapter, was formed three years ago with the help of some women who were members of the Boston chapter and thought Western Mass. needed its own. The Springfield chapter reached its current number, 13, thanks to a recruiting drive that brought Morin and several others into the ranks, with the goal of getting to 20 and perhaps more.

The group meets once a month for 3 1/2 hours, said Morin, noting that this a serious time commitment for busy business owners, but one she is willing to make given what she takes home with her after each session and what the group is helping her focus on.

Specifically, this comes down to “working on your business, not in your business,” she said, adding that this is a problem common to many in growing companies. Most business owners spend most of their time putting out fires, meeting deadlines, and doing what’s necessary to keep a business going day to day, she continued, adding that she wants to spend much more time in what she called the next ‘quadrant’: doing planning, relationship-building, and staff development. “That’s where I want to live, and this group is helping me get there.”

Using a roundtable format, WPO puts aside time each meeting to dive into one member’s ‘issue,’ said Cathy Crosky, chapter chair and a principal with the Charter Oak Consulting Group in Williamsburg. That’s accomplished not by preaching or telling that individual what to do, she continued, but by sharing experiences and providing insight into matters ranging from succession issues to effective use of social media to finding alternative funding sources.

“We do something called a ‘peerspective,’” she said, referring to the process by the Edward Lowe Foundation. “It takes us through a structured process so that we can understand a situation deeply and help that person think it through in a different way and offer perspective.”

Lauren Wright, president of Ludlow-based CSW Inc., a provider of integrated services for packaging, was the beneficiary of one such ‘peerspective,’ this one involving what she called a desired culture shift, from production-focused to sales-and-service-focused.

“I was having some issues around that, so we brainstormed ways to get employees more involved and raise accountability,” she said. “They had some great suggestions, some of which I’ve already implemented. It has helped quite a bit; I love being able to get input from people with so much knowledge and experience.”

The women-only format, meanwhile, provides an environment featuring individuals with shared challenges and an understanding, and appreciation, of the many nuances (and headaches) of balancing life and work.

“This is a network of women who understand what it’s like every morning to go to your little laptop to see if there’s any money in the bank,” said Nancy Urbschat, owner of Springfield-based TSM Design and one of the first members of the Springfield chapter. “It’s important to have someone to talk to — someone who has that understanding — because owning a business is a lonely position.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at WPO, its mission, and how it carries it out.

Meetings of the Minds

‘Reaching farther. Together.’

That’s the working slogan for WPO, and Crosky says those three words effectively convey what the organization is all about.

At a time when more women are becoming business owners, but also when many such women (especially those over 40) lack role models, WPO essentially provides a room full of them. But it goes much further; by bringing these women together, the group helps them meet career goals, set new ones, and, well, reach farther.

“Women being in leadership roles and owning their own businesses is still relatively new,” said Crosky. “A generation before us … most of us didn’t have mothers who do what we do. The group provides an opportunity to learn from one another and benefit from the wisdom of the other women in the group.

“People can learn best practices and hear about things that people have gone through that they haven’t gone through yet,” she continued. “In that way, it’s like a peer-advisory group or a board of directors. It’s a way to look at your business through many different lenses.”

And while some WPO members were admittedly skeptical about the need for — and value of — a women-only group, they have, though their experiences with the organization, come to the conclusion that there is a clear need for such an organization.

“For most of us, if not all of us, there was some initial apprehension about a group solely for women,” Urbschat said. “But this group provides the kind of opportunity that many men are afforded, to have that kind of peer group to bounce ideas of, to mentor, and to be supportive. This is an alternative for us, and even though many of us were reluctant at first, its value has been proven time and again.”

WPO, which was founded in 1997 and now has 83 chapters worldwide, is open to women who own their own companies or have a partnership stake, as in the case of a law firm or accounting firm. The companies involved must have at least $2 million in annual sales ($1 million for nonprofits), making them what Crosky called “second-stage” businesses, and not startups.

There is significant help available to new businesses, she said, noting such groups as the Mass. Small Business Center Network and other agencies, but not nearly as much for these second-stage outfits, and especially for those owned and managed by women.

“You have to lead differently when you’re a second-stage entrepreneur than you do when you’re a startup,” she explained. “And there’s just not a lot of support out there for the kinds of things business owners face when their businesses start to grow.”

There are 10 stated ‘primary objectives’ for the organization. Specifically, it strives to:

  • Increase the business and financial success of women presidents;

  • Develop innovative solutions to business challenges through discussions held in a confidential environment;
  • Provide continuing education in business and leadership;
  • Increase awareness of women’s issues and opportunities;
  • Provide a forum where women presidents can make strategic contacts and promote business development;
  • Increase the visibility of women presidents on the local, national, and international levels;
  • Provide business resources including monthly newsletters, a Web site, media referrals, an annual membership director, and an annual conference;
  • Advance the influence of women in the business community;
  • Re-energize and revitalize women presidents, leading to a more productive balance in work and life; and
  • Celebrate the success of women in business.
  • Not Winging It

    The current membership of the Springfield chapter conveys diversity (one of its oft-listed assets), with many professionals, including a lawyer, accountant, and business consultants, and many sectors represented, including manufacturing (Al’s Beverage), retail (Buffalo Wild Wings and Fran Johnson’s Golf & Tennis), and advertising and marketing.

    Morin, who noted that she is very much in the minority as a woman in the world of restaurant franchising, said her five-year plan is quite ambitious, calling for perhaps 15 franchises in Southern New England, with the third coming later this year. “A girl’s got to dream,” she told BusinessWest, noting that WPO is helping her do that, and will likely be a real force in making the dream come true.

    When asked how the group has helped her and others, Morin said it comes down to imparting wisdom and support, not through preachy lectures, but through queries aimed at helping an individual contrive their own solution.

    “The feedback, or ‘feed-forward,’ comes in the form of questions, so you don’t have that, ‘in my second year in business, I did this…’” she explained. “It’s less anecdotal. And when the probing comes in the form of a question, not only does the person with the problem or issue benefit, but we all do.

    “We turn it inward and think of how it’s applicable to our business,” she continued. “I find that incredibly helpful and unique to this group, as opposed to other professional organizations.”

    Urbschat said she joined WPO not long after long-time business partner Leslie Lawrence left TSM. It was a difficult time in her career, one when she was questioning what she wanted to do — and how to go about doing it.

    “I needed to think about whether I wanted to continue doing this or do something else,” she said. “I eventually concluded that I did want to keep doing this, but that I actually needed to figure out what would be an appropriate role for me in the business. My roles had to change.

    “I was inspired by the other members and their stories to think about growing the business,” she continued. “I had always been happy with it just being where it was, and it had been there for a a lot of years; we had been just sort of skidding along. Now, I actually have goals. I’ve been alive for 58 years, and this is the first time in a while I’ve actually had goals.”

    One element of WPO that Urbschat finds unique, as well as helpful, is the desire of members to hold others in the group accountable when it comes to issues they’re facing and steps they are taking.

    “If someone walks away with a solution and chooses to ignore it, there may well come a time when someone might say, ‘you know, what have you done about that thing you were concerned about?’” she explained. “That accountability is a really good thing for a small business because we don’t have boards of directors saying, ‘these are our expectations of you.’”

    Meghan Sullivan, a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Sullivan Hayes & Quinn, is another newcomer to the group. Crosky invited her to join after hearing her speak on her specialty, employment law.

    Sullivan said she’s learned a lot about business, and people, since joining, and especially about strategic planning and more-efficient use of time, energy, and resources “in ways that move the business forward and hopefully motivate people to follow you.

    “Other members have helped me become more cognizant of situations where you’re so caught up in the minutiae that you’re missing the mission of the organization,” she continued. “There’s really been some learning opportunities presented in ways that, while I was in some ways aware of the concepts, I hadn’t brought them to the forefront in my business.”

    Generous Share

    When asked for a qualitative perspective on the value provided by WPO, Urbschat found a rather uniue and insightful answer.

    “How many 3 1/2-hour meetings do you look forward to?” she asked, letting that question stand by itself, because it could.

    Others used different words and phrases, but expressed generally the same sentiment: this is time and energy well-spent, because, as Urbschat said, running a business is a lonely job.

    And with WPO, these women leaders never have to go it alone.

    George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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