How Strategic Networking Gets Women Ahead at Work


Early in my career, I lost out on a promotion that I was highly qualified for and knew I deserved. I was shocked, but over time, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was trumped by the politics of the organization. I was solely focused on my performance and paid no attention to the way the decision would be made. The company offered me a lateral position that required relocation, but somehow I could not muster the energy or interest to make a move. I realized I no longer had passion for or commitment to the company, nor did I trust that I had job security, so I began looking for other opportunities.

Lucky for me, I reached out to my former colleague, Cheryl, who knew of an opening for a high-level management position with ServiceMaster, running their national homecare, pharmacy, and hospice operation. Cheryl knew the management team, and told them about my level of experience and expertise. Essentially, she pre-sold me. Not only did I land the job but I nearly doubled my salary, which research shows can be the case across the board. A study done at Pepperdine University and sponsored by Upwardly Mobile, Inc. a few years ago examined this very thing. They surveyed more than 600 high earning “elite” professionals about how they used networking, and found that “networking is a key driver behind higher salaries and career advancement.”

The point is that Cheryl, a former colleague with whom I stayed in touch over the years, opened the door for me and helped me to secure the new position. I never would have known that ServiceMaster was looking for someone to run this company had it not been for her. This is the power of a strategic network. In fact, one of the most powerful ways to build a successful career and take control of your destiny is to proactively build a strategic network. The first thing to ask yourself is: what is your career goal? And then: who do you know, and who do you need to know to help you reach your goal? In my case, I knew I wanted another job in a new company, and I assembled a list of people that included Cheryl based on that goal.

Here are some ways your network can help you advance in your career:

Be Strategic

One of the pitfalls many women face in the workplace is that they fail to strategically network.  Instead, they rely on social relationships and don’t come up with a plan. Women are great at building relationships, but they need to start looking at what the relationship can do for them. The Center for Creative Leadership reports that those with a larger network are prone to be higher achievers.

The moral of the story—look strategically at your workplace to identify contacts that will help you build visibility and credibility to support your career and promote you for new opportunities as they arise. Look for those who have power and influence—whether it be for a promotion, a sponsorship program or special projects that may provide extra visibility. Use your strategic contacts as sources of information and connection.

Don’t Limit Yourself

Building a network doesn’t mean simply going to lunch with friends from work. That’s easy and well within your comfort zone. Instead, put yourself out there. Set up coffee dates and one-on-ones with those who can help you get ahead. Focusing only on those you know and like will result in a closed network. Instead, focus on an open network full of diverse individuals who don’t know one another. This gives you increased exposure to their network as well.

It’s critical to develop relationships with those in positions of power and influence. Even if that person is in a different department at work, reach out and get to know them and let them know where your key skills and talents lie. Help them understand your value proposition and what you have to offer and how your skills could potentially be of benefit to them.

Leverage Your Relationships

So, you’ve met key stakeholders and created a relationship with them. Now what? Make a deposit into your favor bank. What do I mean by this? Identify what the needs are across the organization and offer to help and do favors for this key stakeholder. Take on projects that seemingly no one else wants to do. This is a great way to build relationships, and you may just get to “cash in” on this experience at just the right moment.

Becoming “authentically flexible,” as professor and author Erin Meyer calls it, is another way of leveraging your networking relationship. Being adaptable to different situations shows that we have a desire and care for other cultures and other work settings, especially as we move into a more global, digital work environment.

Surrounding yourself with a strategic network of people who are in positions of power and who care about you helps you navigate the politics of the workplace. It helps you avoid political landmines, gives you access to important information, and allows you to position yourself for advancement. The key to your success is not based solely on your performance. Be strategic and intentional and build a powerful tribe of allies and champions to support your career.

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