They say it only takes one spark to light a fire and one person to start a movement, and the story that Janet Johnson recently shared with me reinforces that notion.
Janet is the Senior Director of Marketing at Peak Technologies, a Zebra Premier Solution, Registered ISV and Industrial Automation partner. She’s also one of the co-founders of Women@Peak, a fast-growing inclusion network that she was inspired to launch after attending a Women in Tech panel hosted by Zebra’s own Emily Cates in 2019 during a Zebra Partner Conference.
Emily, who has long been a champion of inclusion and diversity, was serving as global co-chair of Zebra’s Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN) at the time and led what Janet describes as “a truly inspiring session” with world-renowned and award-winning public speaker Patricia Fripp. The topic? Empowering women to do great things. What Janet didn’t know when she entered that room was that she was going to be empowered to walk out and do great things – Emily and her work at Zebra was the spark Peak needed. Yet, after that session, Janet and a small team of Peak women started a movement within their company that would soon serve as a model for others.
Find out how Janet helped start and successfully build a global women’s networking group from the ground up practically overnight:
Cynthia: When you signed up to attend that Women in Tech session at Zebra’s 2019 Partner Conference, what were you expecting?
Janet: I had never been to anything like it before, so I wasn’t expecting to get anything out of it other than maybe meeting some new people. I was wrong. I completely underestimated what I would learn from the session and how it would impact me.
Cynthia: What was it that compelled you to walk out of that room and say, “we need to start a women’s networking group at Peak, and we need to do this right now?”
Janet: I walked into a room of strangers and left feeling connected to so many. But, more importantly, I felt an intense positive energy. We learned how to better advocate for ourselves, how to be more comfortable acknowledging our accomplishments, and how to help others to do the same. Almost immediately, I was thinking about how many of my colleagues at Peak would have really appreciated this session and started to think about how we could recreate this energy in our own organization and keep the momentum going.
It helped that I had support. Juliann Larimer, a former sales vice president at Zebra who later joined Peak and currently serves on the Peak Technologies Board, was actually the one who invited me to attend the session. I think she knew deep down that we could do for our Peak team members what Emily and her team did at Zebra with WIN – we could lead women to the resources and support they needed by following the lead of Emily and the Zebra WIN team.
Cynthia: Was it hard to get the Women@Peak inclusion network started?
Janet: Starting the group was actually fairly easy. We assembled a small team of people – me, a colleague from our western division and a colleague in EMEA to start – and we met for 30 minutes every other week to brainstorm on how we wanted the group to work. We talked about what platform we would use for communicating, how we would invite people, how we would encourage conversations, and things like that. We also took time to establish a mission for the group, as we wanted to define what we hoped to accomplish.
It was important to us that we provided a comfortable setting where people felt they could be open and honest, so we set some group rules and guidelines. For example, we require everyone to listen with an open mind and be sensitive to others’ views and thoughts. We remind them that everyone is entitled to an opinion and that encouragement, positivity and praise are all welcome. We don’t record meetings – though we have recorded some sessions where we all agree to it upfront so that it is available as a resource later – and we uphold strict confidentiality among the group. Whatever is shared in meetings stays within the confines of those conversations, and anything emailed to the admin group remains private.
Cynthia: What is your mission statement?
Janet: To create and provide a safe, inclusive forum for the women of Peak Technologies to learn from each other, lean on each other and most of all, grow a network of women who encourage each other in their jobs and day-to-day living.
Cynthia: Peak Technologies is a global company, so how have you reached out to employees across each region to encourage participation?
Janet: We held our kickoff event – a virtual session – on February 9, 2020. Then, for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020, we sent an email out to the entire organization about the #EachforEqual call to action. We also created a landing page with resources and useful info about IWD and women’s issues, and we had employees send in photos with the IWD signs from which we created a montage of employee photos.
After that, after we started to build some awareness, the admin started to arrange and host regular sessions centered on topics commonly of interest to women. For example, we hosted a session in July to discuss “Habits of Successful Women” where we shared video messages from women CEOs and other female leaders talking about how they overcame challenges in their careers. In September 2020, we hosted a session about pursuing promotions and career opportunities followed by public speaking best practices in an October 2020 virtual gathering. When the holiday season rolled around, we invited the Women@Peak members to share their family and cultural traditions from around the world in line with our mission to expand our support outside workplace matters.
Cynthia: Did you encourage men to serve as allies and attend any of these events?
Janet: Some of the sessions we’ve hosted these last three years have been open to the entire company, and we host a session each year as part of the company sales kick-off meeting where we cover topics like gender bias in the workplace. At least once a year, we poll all employees to get an idea on what topics they would be interested in covering or discussing.
However, the Women@Peak team has always been led exclusively by women. The admin group has ebbed and flowed as people come in and out of the business, but the team always includes three-to-six women from all geographies and departments. With so much happening in the organization, including multiple acquisitions and the merger with Supply Chain Services (SCS), we are all very mindful of jumping in and doing what we can to maintain this group. We take turns serving point for the regular sessions, typically teaming up so that at least two of us are serving point for each session. But we all jump in where needed.
Cynthia: Has the dynamic of the group changed as the overall company’s dynamics have changed throughout merger and acquisition activity?
Janet: Each time we add a new company into the mix, there is a shift in culture and sometimes leadership. And because Women@Peak is not a top-down executive-led group, each transformational change has motivated our team and our members to continue growing our group organically from the employee level. We want to maintain that safe place for women to gather, discuss topics of interest and have a support system where growth and development are encouraged.
Some say the most rapid changes and growth have happened in the last year from both an organizational perspective and that, as a result, Women@Peak has become more important than ever. I agree on both counts. Through this group, we can positively impact our company culture by getting to know our colleagues on common ground, as we care about many of the same topics and issues – as people, rather than just employees. Women@Peak provides a level of connection for team members throughout the organization, and it gives us a forum to keep conversations going around topics that are important to us. In turn, we help to nurture a positive, respectful, diverse company culture. Just this past week, we added three new employees to our admin team, each of them from a different company within the new Peak portfolio of companies.
Cynthia: I would imagine that connection is especially important given how geographically disparate the teams are across Peak.
Janet: Absolutely. In fact, Mary Lou Rodriquez, who has been on the Women@Peak admin team for the last two years, is the only female service tech on the Peak Service team. She works remotely from her home base office in California and recently told me:
“As a woman tech, working by myself, the Women@Peak group has helped me to know I am connected to other women who might be dealing with similar challenges within my company. Information that is shared is safe between us which helps me share my own struggles, knowledge and resolves without feeling judged. Information gathered from others has inspired me to keep moving forward in a positive direction.”
That is validation that we’re doing something right.
Cynthia: Now that the group is growing, how do you plan to support members?
Janet: We’re going to continue hosting 30-minute roundtable sessions to discuss topics of interest or current events, and we’re going to invite guest speakers to encourage women through growth, development, and leadership topics. We’re also considering the introduction of mentor programs to help develop women in leadership positions and women in tech overall. But most of all, we’re just going to keep listening, learning, and encouraging. We will do whatever we can to help employees feel their best so they are happy and productive.
Cynthia: What advice would you give other companies and partners about starting their own inclusion networks or employee resource groups?
Janet: Don’t complicate it. Find a few people who would like to be a part of organizing the group and start talking. All the logistics and how’s and when’s will fall into place. We were fortunate to have some great talent on the team who helped formalize our group by designing the invites and presentations that we used to encourage participation. We even had talented IT team members step up to help us set up the communication channels and give us ways to manage the group in Microsoft Teams. I think you’ll be surprised how many people there are in every organization willing to jump in and help when it comes to grassroots community support efforts like this.
Cynthia: I assume your advice extends to the execution of events as well?
Janet: Yes. Even after getting into a structured cadence and meeting format, some of our best sessions have proven to be just free-form open conversations. It’s amazing how much we can learn from each other if we just take a few minutes to share. Your admin or leadership team will grow and develop, as will your group’s membership. Getting it started is a matter of simply connecting through conversation.
Cynthia: Though you and the team have done a remarkable job getting this inclusion network up and running, I would imagine there were still some challenges getting it started given it was a grassroots effort – or perhaps challenges sustaining it.
Janet: The biggest challenge for me (and I believe most of the team) is time. Most organizations run lean these days and it’s easy to say, “We just don’t have time for this.” But we found it to be completely worth investing the time for Women@Peak. We keep our admin planning meetings short – 30 minutes max – and we often use them as working sessions to prepare for upcoming group forums. Our forums are one hour long, and we have moved from monthly to quarterly gatherings over the last year as we regroup internally and invite new colleagues in from the companies being added to the Peak portfolio. We try to be as efficient as possible.
Cynthia: It sounds like you have no regrets.
Janet: As we seen over the years, the sessions we host are well worth any time put into planning them. We try to make sure that attendees can take something of value away from each session, something that can help them in their day-to-day life that made their time attending worth it, whether it’s a skill or new tool. For example, we did a session where Mary Mascari, a Women@Peak admin team member, showed the team tips on how to use some of our company’s tech tools to better manage their time. So many people in that session had no idea some of these tools were available to us or exactly how to use them.
Plus, as I have personally experienced, any conversation that leaves you feeling reenergized to face a stressful situation is a conversation worth having no matter what else is happening in that moment. I know many women have also found it useful to hear what others on the team use as coping skills to help with well-being or work-life balance. And many people say that without Women@Peak, they wouldn’t know the specific steps to take when looking to advance their career or how to advocate for themselves. To me, knowing that someone’s life was made better – that their confidence was boosted, and they felt empowered – makes everything we’ve done invaluable.
Cynthia: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Janet: There isn’t one thing that stands out. I am sure there were plenty of things that we could have done better or differently or could do better today. But I think as a team we have done a fabulous job getting this launched and running and it will continue to grow and change and improve as people join and bring new ideas.
Cynthia: I agree. I think what you have done is also a great reminder that people should never underestimate the impact they can have on this world. Most of us probably have no idea how much we inspire others every day in conversations that seem benign or actions that seem routine. We are role models, even when we don’t realize it.
Janet: I am just happy to have been a part of a special team of women who saw the value in a group like this and did what we needed to do to get it started. Anytime I hear someone comment on one of our sessions, or talk about what they learned, or how the session was just what they needed, I know we are making a positive impact in the company.
To learn more about Peak Technologies, click here.