Established in 2002, Executive Women's Forum, or EWF, is the largest women's member-based business in the industry, serving some of the most prominent female executives in the field. Last year, I had the pleasure of being a keynote speaker at the 2013 Executive Women's Forum Conference. EWF is the brainchild of Joyce Brocaglia, CEO of Alta Associates, an executive search firm that specializes in the male-dominated information security and IT risk management fields.
One week at EWF and it is clear: EWF is more than an event and education business. It is a brand defined by a strong community of deep connections and shared purpose that drives transformation. As I prepare for this year's EWF conference in October, I decided to reach out to Brocaglia to find out why her members are so blatantly loyal to her and to one another. She shared the four key ingredients for her secret sauce for a thriving community business.
#1: Create a culture based on shared passion and connection based on authenticity
You have heard this one before: Passion and authenticity are baseline ingredients for a shared relationship between a business and its customers. This is especially true in a community-based business. Build your community so that you can share your passion with others who feel that same way. "Building trusted relationships with influential members of our industry enabled me to have an initial audience to share my passion," says Brocaglia.
There are a lot of moving parts in community-based businesses. It's really easy to lose your way because a big client has a new idea or you get bogged down by what is not working. Don't get derailed. Brocaglia's vision for a community with a strong foundation of shared goals and objectives and a commitment for the common good has never wavered.
While a shared passion may get people to join EWF, Brocaglia's authentic style of getting "up close and personal" is what keeps these busy executives active and engaged in the community. "I am not afraid to be myself and share my vulnerabilities with this group, and that authenticity has been shared in the hearts and minds of the community members. I have seen how the members have loved and supported each other through high-highs and low-lows," says Brocaglia.
#2: Put the power in the hands of the members
You cannot start a community-based business, or any business for that matter, in isolation from your customers. Make no mistake about it: The real power lies in the members of the community and not in its leader. Although Brocaglia may have been the one with the idea, she knows EWF is not about her.
"Be humble. Be thankful. Acknowledge that many of the people who are the founding members of building your organization are already overwhelmed with their day jobs and are going above and beyond because they believe in your shared cause," says Brocaglia.
In order for her community to thrive, each member will need to take an active role. Brocaglia has found a way to enable members to feel that the community is their own, that success and the future of the community lay in their hands. "Story-telling is a great way to hand over power to your members. Enable members to write the future story of your organization by defining what it brings them. It gives them a sense of ownership and pride in how you will grow and what you are capable of accomplishing," says Brocaglia.
#3: Harness the Strength of Power in Numbers
Building a community business founded on common good and shared purpose may initially tug at the heartstrings, but it won't secure membership renewals. Brocaglia purposely built and acted upon the power of the collective platform of her 300-plus senior leader members. Together, the members have awarded eight full tuition Master of Science scholarships to increase the number of women in their field. They have established the Cyber Security School Challenge and have educated more than 60,000 kids on how to stay safe online.
"We are a force multiplier when we act together. We have the power to influence real change for women in our industry and to change the landscape of what is possible for us to achieve," says Brocaglia. There is strength in numbers. A strong community business uses that power. You can literally create change in their field, something that would be incredibly difficult to do at the individual level. That strength becomes a source of pride for your members. Use it.
#4: Be of service by solving a real problem
If your community members have a problem, pay attention and listen. Then make it your mission to help them solve it together. If you have a virtual community, study discussions to hear what issues you may be able to help solve through programs, focused community groups, and even at an event. And always reach out and ask your members directly what you can do better.
Brocaglia is intentionally service-based in her community. Every program is offered because of direct input from the community members. "Frank discussions with a number of women revealed that they wanted a vehicle to discuss their struggles in their roles, the demands on their time and their conflicting priorities. Members appreciate that you listen to their needs and create programs and events that otherwise don't exist," says Brocaglia.
A community-based business is never about the brand of the business. Instead, a community business should serve the needs of the community at the individual and collective levels.