I’ve spoken to literally thousands of women about intentional networking and always ask “How many of you have gotten a job, promotion, or large piece of business from a connection in your network?” Most of the people in the room raise their hands and this is consistent with surveys that say 65% to 85% of all jobs happen through connections.
What is curious to me is that most women are like I was — we don’t think of our network as a means to achieving career goals — and personal and professional networks are likely the most powerful resource in our toolkit. Most of us naively hope our work performance stands on its own and that we will rise on the corporate ladder based on merit. Corporations say they are meritocracies/pay for performance cultures and we believe them. We believe it even though there is significant evidence to the contrary. Women are entering the workforce in large numbers, getting strong performance reviews and working hard, yet there continues to be a disproportionate lack of women in senior ranks. And what is most frustrating is we frequently see men getting promoted into jobs where we know there are more qualified women who could fill those roles — but the man who got the job is better connected to that (male dominated) senior leadership group making the decision.
This is not something I had thought about until a lack of network support had a negative effect on me personally. I then transformed my career by making a concerted effort, even as an introvert (it is a myth that good networkers are extroverts), to build a network inclusive of many influential senior level executives, and I did it during work hours. I also recognized, while in the Chief Diversity Officer role that building inclusive networks is one of the most successful ways to change representation at the highest levels.
I found there are two factors that have the greatest impact on representation at the highest levels: (1) having advocates and (2) having a strong network. When we teach women how to build and leverage intentional networks, inclusive of engaging advocates in their networks, women can influence both of these factors that ultimately support career success and growth. It is not that women don’t have the skills to build a strong network, they do, it is that they have not been intentional about who is in their network and they are not opportunistic about leveraging their network for career growth.
I suggest thinking of your core network as a Personal Board of Directors (PBOD). A PBOD is typically between 8 – 15 people (you’re not looking for 100’s of people). The goal is not to collect cards or get more connections on social media sites. What is important is to carefully select and be as intentional about the make up of your PBOD as you would be if your career were a company’s board.
Are your PBOD members the people who will help you achieve your career goals? If not, you need to start thinking about others to add to your PBOD.
It’s important to strategically build a PBOD with a diversity of people including about 25% who are a level or two above you at work, or leaders in your field. These are people who are willing to help you achieve your career goals. They are recognized for having the cachet, and desire to invest in you. They will help you see potential that might not be immediately obvious to you. And, they are willing to open doors to opportunities, clear away obstacles and even fight for you when necessary.
Their personal endorsement of you is often all you will need to have other people interested in your career and help you achieve your goals. Through your relationships with these power players you stay current, get to know the informal leaders, and often discover solutions to stubborn professional problems.
Consider adding someone outside of your inner circle for your Personal Board of Directors. Is there someone in your existing network you can reach out to for a warm introduction to someone you want to cultivate a relationship with and ultimately invite to be a member of your PBOD? Once you have an introduction you need to build your own relationship. Make the meeting easy and attractive for people you are hoping to add to your PBOD. Start with a request for just a few minutes with them to address a targeted issue — or ask them a specific question that you would like their advice or guidance. Contact an expert in the area you are working or someone a level or two above whose advice you would value. Asking for help with one specific project, on one topic, makes it very time bound, provides the person with information on what you are working on and gives you a reason to meet with them. Always follow up with the person to let them know the outcome of your project and how their advice helped. This establishes a relationship and lets the person know that you will not take a lot of their time, and that their input makes a difference.
Networking has to be a win/win. When I ask for help from anyone in my network I also ask if there is anything I can do to support them. Be a connector for others in your network and look for ways to support the people in your network — expecting nothing in return — and you will build strong connections.
Ben Franklin said the best way to get someone to be an ally is to ask them to help you and it has proven to be true for me as well as for many women. We’re all wired to want to contribute. Give others the gift of the chance to feel good by helping you.
Please don’t add networking as a task to your busy lives, but make leveraging your network the way you work. As you strengthen your network, you will find the “networking genius” in you! You will work more efficiently cross-functionally, be more connected to your company’s overall goals, provide better support for your team’s career goals and ultimately tap into the right connections at the right time to get the work done.
The intentional network must be exactly that. Intentional. When you build an intentional network success will follow.