The group - Julia Bickerstaff, Ghazaleh Lyari, Sara Lucas and Cindy Luken - meets once a month for dinner. Photo: Jacky Ghossein JGZ
Forget that easy model of competing to succeed in business. Collaboration with like-minded entrepreneurs can be the more effective way to surge ahead. And women have a knack of making it work.
Sara Lucas, head of financial literacy education group EnrichMe, knows that running your own business can be a solitary pursuit – but that it doesn't have to be. Lucas takes part in business groups, including a lunch series where the same table of women get together once a month to discuss their work.
She also runs her own series of dinners on set business themes, such as dealing with a challenging business partner or investor, or looking to raise capital, and invites trusted associates who have something valuable to contribute.
“The principle here is that this is not about networking and mentoring, this is actually about collaboration,” Lucas says.
The women invest their time and skills to help each other in business, as opposed to mentoring, which implies a hierarchy, or networking – the “here's my business card, here's why you should do business with me, and what's your name again” approach, Lucas says.
“There is group of people I have in my inner circle: we all know each other's businesses and each other's issues. It's kind of like a core group of informal advisers I suppose, and sounding boards.”
Lucas says that collaboration can be hard work and involves a serious investment of time, energy and knowledge.
“Collaboration involves either party giving up time or sharing hard-earned skills and connections," she says.
"It's a pooling of talent to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome. It's about fostering meaningful business relationships; pulling together a group of people with complementary skills who are willing to be honest and objective about the needs of another.
"To be part of the circle, you need to be willing to take advice, to really reframe your thinking and to see your world another way.
“Whilst no perspective is necessarily right or wrong, objectivity and creative thinking, problem solving and good humour are essential ingredients.”
Woodworker and environmental educator Natasha Morton, from Mullumbimby in northern NSW, has also created a collaborative group, meeting with three other women once a month to discuss business.
“I was talking with friends at a barbecue and we all realised we had common issues about running our own businesses: common struggles of feeling a bit isolated sometimes, and we realised a lot of our issues – even though we worked in quite different business areas – were the same and that we probably have a lot to share with each other and a lot of advice we could help each other with,” Morton says.
Once a month on a weeknight, Morton meets with the women: a psychologist who runs her own practice, a careers' advisor who is building an enterprise, and a communications consultant.
Through trial and error, the group has worked out a format that suits them. They spend nine minutes each talking about what has occurred in their work over the past month and give each other feedback; they then set the agenda for the rest of the meeting, based on common issues raised; and they recap the previous month's goals and commit to new ones for the month ahead.
Morton says the group has chosen to remain small so its four members can make a valuable contribution at each meeting, and so that the women can intimately understand each other's business and the pressures and challenges they face.
“We know each other's stories and work life and you start to notice patterns. You can help articulate that back to each other and we can all learn from that,” Morton says.
“For me it's also been good, especially when taking on new things. The group has helped me work through barriers and make things possible – given me the confidence that I can take the next step, and given me other professionals I can ask advice from so I feel supported.”
EnrichMe's Lucas says a collaborative approach to business does come more naturally to women than men, who tend to be innately drawn to a competitive model, but she says collaboration is not the easy way.
“I get the occasional snarky comment that you're just a bunch of women, you're going to talk about lipsticks and handbags. I just say, 'Listen up guys; this is the hard way',” Lucas says. “It involves someone being willing to give something up to work with the other. It's a reconfiguration of the win/lose ethic operated by many business – shifting the paradigm to win/win,” Lucas says.
“Ask yourself, if you want to be part of a collaborative movement, what are you prepared to give up and what are you prepared to give?"