I belong to a group of women leaders who meet once a year with the goal of providing mutual personal and professional support and advice. In this post, I want to talk about how this group functions and how important and meaningful it has been for me.

There are two rules to this club: 1) What gets said in the group stays within the group, and 2) If a member gets in touch with you during the year, you must respond within 24 hours, even if just to say, “I’m away but will get back to you on this date.”

The group was established around thirty years ago by women leaders in the pharma industry. They saw their male counterparts going on golf outings and fly fishing trips with each other and decided to start a personal/professional support tradition of their own.

At the annual meeting, usually held at a resort, each person gets time in front of the rest of the group to make a presentation about what is happening in her life professionally and personally (because these are so often interconnected). After the presentation, discussion is opened up to the group, who may provide insight and advice on either topic. There are also some impromptu regional meetings, in addition to the regular annual one.

What has struck me every year with these remarkable women is that everyone has a personal journey, and it can be incredibly powerful for us as professionals to support that journey. This is the true purpose of affinity and networking groups — they’re not just forums for shrewdly angling for a better position or a higher salary. They’re for generating understanding, for thinking of new ways to approach challenges, and for listening to advice from like minded people.

If you don’t have an affinity or networking group within your organization, see if you can develop one. It’s not hard! Focus on activities that engender professional and personal support and mentoring. Address the idea of confidentiality. Put a little bit of structure around it. In my group, nominations for new members must come from three existing members. This means that anyone entering the group most likely relates well to its goals and culture; they’re well-accomplished and have reached a certain level in order to be there. Be aware of and seek out diverse backgrounds in your members. Elect leadership to the group; consider collecting dues and hiring an event organizer for big meetings.

Lisa Suennen over at Venture Valkyrie has written an excellent article about this group and some of the quotable quotes that came out of our meeting.