Overall, women are surprisingly ineffective at networking for business. In particular, they are not very effective at networking with men. Multiple studies have shown that women naturally form relationships and networks with women within and across organizational boundaries. But so long as men hold the power over leadership and business, women must also build fruitful relationships and robust networks with men. In particular, they need to use those networks to meet and attract sponsors who will champion their careers and help them achieve their ambitions.
Why networking is essential for career advancement
Many women recoil at the notion of networking. They disdain networking as instrumental, interpreting it as a means of using people and trading favors to get ahead; they believe that moving up based on “pull” or “connections” is unfair and unseemly. They prefer being relational and value a relationship for its own sake. They draw lines between friendships and business relationships and try to keep them separate.
Women who hold such views are at a disadvantage in the business world. Networking is an integral part of working life, and being perceived as “connected” is a valuable asset, especially for anyone with leadership aspirations, as Herminia Ibarra’s book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (2015) attests. Networking and trading favors are not exploitation: In business, network relationships are regularly used for mutual benefit. People give and receive access to information, resources and opportunities. In fact, the quality of your personal and professional relationships — your social capital — determines how quickly and how high you will advance. A range of studies have shown that smart networking is the single most important factor in predicting career success. After all, leaders depend on strong networks because they operate through others; the broader and more expansive the network, the more effective it can be.
Closed vs. open networks
Networks can be characterized as closed or open. Most people gravitate toward closed networks, where they are connected to people who know each other. Closed networks include people in the same practice group, firm, or industry or those of the same age, sex, race, or class. Such networks are comfortable and efficient; members have similar information, connections and interests, which tends to reaffirm what they already know. It’s easier to accomplish things in a closed network because people share a common language, understand applicable norms, and feel a sense of belonging and trust. However, a closed network limits your ability to differentiate yourself from others and therefore reduces your competitive advantage.
Open networks are more diverse and less dense; their members do not share many connections. Instead, clusters of people are linked through an intermediary that has been frequently described as a “network broker.” As a network broker, you have personal access to what you need through contacts in various networks, as well as opportunities to help the members of those groups. You have the possibility of demonstrating your value to them by connecting them to people, ideas and resources that they would otherwise not know of.
Open networks present challenges. It takes effort and time to stay connected to people in multiple groups. They may present new information and conflicting ideas that you need to assimilate, weigh and reconcile. Unlike in closed networks where you are an “insider” with deep connections and high status, in an open network, your ties to others may be weak and less secure, and you may be an “outsider” in any particular group. Nonetheless, the advantages of having a dynamic open network are many. You can:
- Get to know people in a broad range of areas who can be helpful to you in different ways.
- Help people get what they need by connecting them to your contacts.
- Learn useful information from one group and be the first to introduce it to another.
- Gather information from a variety of sources, giving you the ability to see more possibilities and make better-informed decisions.
- Hear fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, enabling you to be more insightful and creative.
- See patterns among recurrent needs and issues, allowing you to identify trends and opportunities that others might not recognize.
- Take advantage of trends and opportunities by synthesizing innovative practices, approaches and solutions.
- Promote collaboration, change and innovation by bringing unconnected people together.
Using your open network in these ways enhances your status and importance. When you are seen as “connected” — as a person with valuable contacts who can get things done — people take note: This is someone who offers distinctive value to the organization, someone with leadership potential.
Strategically combining closed and open networks makes it more likely that you will attract influential sponsors. Sponsors are leaders, and they are drawn to others who demonstrate the desire and potential to become leaders. Before risking their own reputation on your behalf, sponsors need to believe that you are a safe investment. Being a strong performer within closed networks and a network broker in an open network gives you many opportunities to demonstrate your worth and your ability to lead.
Networking with men
Women tend to feel more comfortable networking with other women. Building relationships with women is easier, less intimidating and less complicated than with men, especially older men. Men, too, prefer to network with other men for similar reasons, as Ibarra also points out in her book. But men hold a crucial advantage in that their networks, at least at the top levels, still wield more power. And women are often excluded from these networks, or, at a minimum, are not invited in.
Many women’s initiatives and professional associations support the formation of alternative networks, fostering personal bonds and mutual support among women inside the firm or organization, as well as with women clients and business leaders. These women’s networks are extremely important and worthwhile, but by concentrating exclusively on women-only networks, women miss out on the valuable and more immediate business opportunities that men control.
It may be less comfortable for women to network with men than with women. It is also probably less comfortable for men to network with women than with other men. But the rewards are worth it. Here are a few suggestions:
- Go where the men are. Look for opportunities to interact with men, especially at firm, business or professional events, even if — especially if — there are few other women there. Take time to engage socially with men in work and professional settings so that you can get to know each other more fully.
- Focus on a few key male contacts. Network strategically. Having numerous contacts in your network can be useful, but when you have a specific objective, such as finding a sponsor or prospective client, quality is more important than quantity. Focus on men who are best situated to help you, including influential partners and rainmakers to whom others defer or who have the ears of decision-makers. In particular, look for men who have championed women in the past and who might be good candidates to help you.
- Use your practice and office networks. Members of the same work team, practice group or firm constitute networks based on shared professional values and work objectives. Use those commonalities as a foundation on which to build deeper relationships with men. Let them see you in action as someone they can rely on who has the expertise, work ethic and networking savviness to be a star.
- Show your networking value. Offer to link a male colleague to others in your network who have the information, services, opportunities or resources he needs.
- Find a shared network. Build on shared connections you have outside the office. Look for networks that you and a male colleague both belong to, or that he belongs to, such as specialty bar associations, non-profit or community organizations, the symphony board, an alumni association or a political campaign. If you don’t yet belong but are interested, ask him to help you get involved.
- Connect people from different networks. When you know people who do not know each other but who share a common interest, or who can help each other professionally, introduce them. Introducing men to women or to other men expands your visibility to the people in your network, makes them grateful to you, and lets them see you in action as a network broker.
- Ask for introductions. Ask a man for an introduction to one or more people he knows whom you want to meet for business reasons. It will make him feel valued and when he introduces you, it will give you more credibility and make it more likely the other person will be willing to meet you.
Women who seek success in organizations need influential men to champion their efforts. Networking is a way to meet such men and invite their support. As you move up the ladder, any initial discomfort will fade as the relationships you forge prove their value. D