How Women Rise – Failing to enlist Allies (Habit #5)

The circle of trust

Spoiler Alert! If you planned to watch Shrek The Third, here comes a spoiler and you should stop reading now. Dreamwork launched the movie over ten years ago and it is a great example of why we need to enlist allies around ourselves. In a nutshell, Princess Fiona is locked in a tower with the Queen Mum and her ladies – the ladies are the fairy tale characters Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. Throughout the movie, the characters show little commonalities, but to fight the villains, they all pitch in with their special skills and the ladies transform to some sort of ‘Charlie’s Angels’. Fiona whistles the sign for the attack after which Snow White starts singing a high tone to charm the animals and then screaming to command the animals to attack. After Snow White gets them all into the castle, Cinderella hurls her glass slipper like a boomerang, knocking the guards out and Sleeping Beauty manages the rest of the guards by yawning and falling to the ground, causing the knights to trip over her and fall… So different but the perfect team for the attack!

Having differences maybe one of the main reasons why we fail to enlist allies: if people are different to us, we may find it difficult to connect.

Let us start though by thinking about allies. Who are allies and how would one qualify as an ally? Unless we are freelancers or solopreneurs, our everyday workplace means that we are either part of a team or we lead a team of different individuals. Are these allies? Formal allies maybe as they all come together for one purpose and their mutual benefit. The allies that are discussed in this article though are referring more to informal allies and these are the people who are on your side and maybe even connect themselves with your cause or purpose.

A case study of the habit of failing to enlist allies is Dianna, who is a Trademark litigator for a mineral conglomerate headquartered in Melbourne. She is sent to an assignment in Singapore through a sponsor of hers within the Maritime law, which is outside her expertise and an overly complex industry. On her arrival, Dianna feels overwhelmed and tells her new boss, that she will spend every waking hour on getting up to speed. Her boss reminds her that she was not brought onboard to be another lawyer and rather as a strong leader of a team that was known to squabble amongst themselves and withhold information. Her team was also resenting her for being an unqualified outsider who had taken a promotion away from them, so the tip her boss gave her, made all the difference in her approach. Dianna focused on forging relationships with people in operations, customers, and suppliers instead of her team and starts to realize that connections from Australia were a valuable currency in the shipping world as well. She becomes a visible ambassador for the company in Singapore and the moment Dianna starts sharing her web of resources and connections with her team, she won the trust of her team, not because of her legal knowledge, but because of the favors she was able to pull and the connections she was able to make that added enormous value to her team.

Sally Helgesen shares this case study in her book “How Women Rise” and whilst reading it, your thoughts may have already gone down to thinking “Have I ever had that experience myself, that I was able to pull resources?” Whether you have or have not, let’s build a roadmap to move towards becoming an “Active Allies Engager”!

Three steps to become a person who actively engages allies, just as Sally suggests in her book.

Step No. 1 – The circle of trust


You may come up with people who are in your corner and that is step number one! If you are not there yet, let’s establish allies’ criteria to identify them and add to your list of people you may already have in your corner.

Your Allies web should be a diverse group of people. To visualize this step, you can simply draw your very own circle of trust, halve it and name one side ‘similar’ and the other ‘complementary’. Just like in the story of Shrek The Third, Fiona’s group of Ladies would probably be ranked on the complementary side – they are different from her and at first sight, don’t have a lot in common. This is where the power of diversity kicks in through surrounding oneself with people of the same know-how such as the case of Dianna bringing in an additional and opposite skills.

When you look at your circle and aim at increasing the number of people, ask yourself:

  • Think of someone, who you can easily get lost in conversations with? (add that name to your circle half named ‘similar’)
  • Think of someone, who is the opposite of yourself or whose skillset you admire? (add that name to your circle half named ‘complementary’)
  • Who was there for you when you needed support and who is someone you have always been there for?

Step No. 2 – Organize your circle of trust with intent

Now that you have a list of people in your circle of trust, it is time to evaluate how intentional you are in forging that relationship. You can approach this through the groundbreaking studies of Adam Grant. In his book “Give and Take” he has examined the three operation modes of people as takers, matchers, or givers. Grant places givers and takers on two opposite ends of the spectrum and that is because they differ strongly in their preference for reciprocity. Takers belief in reciprocity for the own benefit and believe in putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs, which makes them competitive and requires them to self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Givers on the opposite tilt reciprocity in the other persons direction and prefer to give more than to receive striving generously to share their time, energy, knowledge, and connections with other people who may benefit from it. The third style, matchers, are in the middle of the spectrum, describing the people who operate on the principle of ‘tit for tat’ seeking a fair exchange of favors. The studies of Adam Grant revealed that these three styles have a dramatic impact on success, which increasingly depends on the ability to interact with others. His book is a tremendous read for everyone who likes the concept and wants to adopt it in its true form.

Based on the principles of Adam Grant the questions to ask yourself with the people in your circle of trust is:

  • Have you ever done something for them?
  • When was the last time you just called to hear how they are doing?
  • Who could you help today?

If any answer is “no clue”, your first task is to research your circle of trust and start thinking of them with the mindset of a giver and not a taker. Not to worry, this is all ok, we are here to make a difference and not to judge!

Let’s get right to it and take the names of your circle of trust and arrange them in a three-column table as per the below. Being intentional, means to check in with two questions, which are:

  • How could he/she support you? and
  • How could you support him/her?
Potential Ally How he/she could support you How you could support him/her
Colleague Anna My brainstorming buddy Give her credit for being my brainstorming buddy
Boss Tom Support my career advancement Walk the extra mile
Employee Craig Assist me with regular tasks that I cannot manage myself Give him exposure for the work he has done for me by letting him present
and so on…

Step No. 3 – Activation

Do not go here without completing Step 2! Whoever is in your circle of trust and you want to engage actively as a true ally, make sure, you have spent time on building a relationship based on trust, empathy, and honesty. It’s like a freebie offered with no expectation of compensation and just the sincere intent to help. Your allies need to feel that you are genuinely interested in helping them and fostering your relationships.

You should also not think that this is a one-stop approach. Engaging your allies is an attitude and not meant as a short-term strategy. Your allies will be your life-time-companions and you win if you didn’t need to engage them.

To activate your allies, you may want to consider the following questions:

  • Whose ability do I need?
  • Where has that person proven that ability?
  • If I observe or ask that person ‘What would you do?’ Will that already help me?

One note on the longevity of your circle of trust. Having said, that this is a long-term strategy, when you join a new organization assess the people whom you need in your corner from day one. Follow the below principles to successfully apply the three steps that make you an Active Ally Engager:

  1. Be honest with your interest in connecting with your future ally.
  2. Prove yourself to your ally as a good person with the right intentions.
  3. Stay authentic and remember the phrase “Better under promise and overdeliver, than the other way around.”

No one should ever storm a castle alone because everybody needs someone to provide hope or a break. If you feel just that, then you know, that you are welcome to get in touch with me.

Melissa L. Schlimm-Managing Partner, the Executive Coach and People Developer at The Ameliorate Group, wrote this article. Content inspired by the book called “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen-12 habits that hold women back from being successful in their careers – as well as my own experience as an executive coach when coaching senior leaders in the workplace.

The Ameliorate Group, Learning Partner with Women@Work, is the leadership and corporate coaching consultancy offering a range of bite-sized learning solutions to long-term development programs incorporating executive coaching to achieve organizational goals. The Ameliorate Group aims to superpower your teams and individual capability beyond what you thought was possible.

The first ‘How Woman Rise” program is provided across the Middle East through The Ameliorate Group, powered by Sally Helgesen. Creating more inclusive workplaces of the future through raising awareness of the habits that hold women back from being more successful in their careers. Encouraging both genders to engage in dialogue and co-creation of solutions and strategies to help women rise at work and in business.

Women@Work Coach -
06 Sep 2020