When we asked over 700 women leaders from a cross section of industries and functional areas what most contributed to their advancement into positions of leadership, the overwhelming response was “building a strong network.” But anyone who has ever attended a “networking” event knows that “networking” can be pretty daunting. Is it possible that the single most important skill women leaders report as necessary for success involves random conversation and business card swapping? Of course not.
The reality is that “networking” has nothing to do with stereotypical measures like how many business cards you collect at an industry lunch or how many contacts you have in your LinkedIn account. The “strong networks” these successful women leaders are talking about involve the ability to build and cultivate real relationships that add value. These are the relationship skills that are based on the belief that Everyone Has Something to Offer and involve building reciprocal connections and sharing ideas and knowledge.
Encouraging emerging leaders (of either gender) to cultivate their network and to reach out to others is hardly a revolutionary leadership insight. The surprising fact however is that we women report we haven’t been so great at building our networks. We can be inhibited by the idea that we don’t have time to cultivate meaningful business relationships because we “have to do it all.” Or we are distracted by an inner critic that colors our interactions with harsh thoughts. Some of us get blocked simply by our ambivalence. (Is this really going to be a good use of my time?) I know that for me, purposefully “building a network” has been about the least of my priorities. I’m excited to simply keep up with the demands of my job and the goings on with kids and home life. I’ll admit: my own “network” is far more accidental (I’m a friendly extrovert) than focused and purposeful. My network is a casual one.
The good news is we can all learn to be better relationship builders (a.k.a. networkers) and in most cases, it just takes a simple shift in attitude. We women leaders must learn that we don’t have to “do it all.” In fact, the only thing we really “have to do” is carefully choose what our own personal “all” is. When it comes to dealing with the inner critic, we need to be gentle with our self and others. And as for ambivalence, I encourage all the women leaders I work with to take responsibility for knowing who they are, and what they want, and how to skillfully ask for it. It’s a practice that requires discipline and awareness but the professional benefits of cultivating a strong network—access to wisdom, information, and advancement opportunities as well as friendship, inspiration, and support—are well worth the effort. I, for one, plan to make a bit more effort to take time to spend with people for the express purpose of seeing how we can support one another!
So, what are you doing to build your network?