A couple of weeks back, I was addressing a group of young high-potential women managers at the Mumbai office of a leading Indian conglomerate. I was talking about the concept of Intentional Career Pathing and how learning the skill of Networking was an essential building block to a successful career, especially for a woman professional.
Ridhi (name changed) raised her hand and asked for permission to speak. “Go ahead, Ridhi”, I said.
“Ma’m, I disagree with your statement. I don’t think Networking should be an essential thing for women. Why should we have to promote ourselves internally and externally if we are doing good work? Shouldn’t our work speak for itself? Also, I am not the ‘sales’ type. I don’t like talking to strangers and just making pointless conversations. Plus, I neither drink nor smoke, nor do I like attending parties and get-togethers. Does this mean that I cannot progress in my career?” Ridhi’s passionate query seemed to have touched a chord with the audience. I saw several heads nod and quite a few smiles signify their acquiescence.
Let me pause here for a moment and reflect on Ridhi’s statement.
In my decade and a half of working with women professionals and also mentoring the Gender Diversity agenda of over a 100 organizations, I have heard this often. I also have proof that even in the case of a high-achieving woman, without networking, her career will be severely under-optimised. In fact, research says that lack of networking is one of the primary reasons for women to drop off the workforce, especially first generation women professionals. There is evidence (as proven by a study undertaken by the AVTAR Group in 2015 on the topic of Career Intentionality) that women begin networking at the ripe old age of 42, while men start as early as 17. And that the presence of non-family support – the kind that effective networking builds for you – is a crucial element in advancing women’s careers. Ergo, it is absolutely important that all misnomers around Networking by and for women must be broken.
I decided to take the bull by its horns. Here is what I shared with Ridhi and her colleagues, one rainy June afternoon in a comfortable conference room overlooking the Bandra-Kurla highway.
Is Networking a ruse to cover up your poor work?
Not at all. In fact, Networking is a great opportunity to accentuate your good work and your forte. It holds the possibility of help at every stage of your work and ensures that the good work that you is shared with folks who matter, without you appearing to be trumpeting about it.
Is Networking only for the Sales types?
Absolutely not. The objective of Networking is not selling, but creating long term relationships that are mutually beneficial. What you do as a result of Networking, is the building of contacts which are meant for aspects such as learning, skill-building, idea-generation, elevator-pitching et al. Definitely not for a temporary quick-sale objective.
Should we Network both internally and externally?
Yes, you should. When you network internally, you get to know about the various opportunities within the organization, strengthen relationships with internal stakeholders and also boost your profile. External Networking, on the other hand, will give you an insight about your peers/competition, the best practices in the industry, new ventures/ideas that are trending in your field apart from helping you gain external sponsors.
Do you have to attend parties and get-togethers or smoke/drink in order to network effectively?
In this networked world, definitely not! With the power of Social Media in your hands, especially LinkedIn, you can do all your networking right from the comfort of your home or your cubicle! Of course, if you get an occasion to attend external events like conferences, seminars or workshops, use it well. And that means putting up your hand for volunteering opportunities as well.
Do all your networking contacts become your best friends?
This is where the concept of weak-tie networking comes up. It is definitely not necessary or possible to have a strong relationships with all your contacts. On the other hand ‘weak-tie’ contacts should form the larger group in your network. These are the ones that form mutually beneficial associations which are also cordial, yet not too close. In the online world, when it is a question of gaining information, the fact that a contact is weak or strong does not affect the communication anyways.
Is there a method to this?
Yes, you can learn the art of Structured Networking. Structured Networking begins with identifying your key ‘target’ contacts. Meaning the folks who you would like to be connected with, those who you would like to meet and learn from, obtain advice from and even be inspired by! Once you have this list, identify opportunities to meet and interact with these ‘target’ contacts. Remember! Networking is never a one-way street. You must also contribute to the benefit and development of your contacts.
Some of the best examples of Networking are leaders like Chanda Kochhar - MD and CEO of ICICI Bank, AbantiSankaranarayanan - Marketing & Innovation Director, Diageo India, Sandhya Vasudevan - MD at DBOI Global Services, Kiran Majumdar Shaw - Chairman and MD of Biocon, Mallika Srinivasan - Chairman and CEO of TAFE and Shikha Sharma – MD & CEO of Axis Bank. Each of these women leaders have utilised the essential tool of networking to not just further their own careers and organizations, but also to spread word about causes that they are passionate about. Apart from sharing knowledge, creating mentees and obtaining business opportunities, they use their social media presence to also take stands.
At which stage in a woman’s career is Networking important?
Networking is an essential skill that needs to be practiced and perfected by all women, especially mid-career women. When you build a discipline around Networking and start practicing it as a habit, you obtain the following benefits:
- Dip into a pool of native wisdom that helps you take more informed decisions
- Ability to create a set of ‘allies’
- Access to projects and mentors
- Create a sense of shared achievement with your team, organization and community
- Obtain career opportunities, assignments and maybe even that big break you are looking for
Organizations like Accenture, Aditya Birla Group, Capgemini, and Johnson & Johnson have invested in providing training on Intentional Career Pathing for their high-potential women professionals via which the skill of Networking is taught. Companies such as IBM, Ford, PepsiCo, EY, Integra, P&G and Kellogg have created Networks within their organizations to empower women and create safe spaces to share and learn.
At the end of my session, as I walked around the group, looking at the key takeaways that each participant was writing down to share with others, I saw these words jump up from Ridhi’s sheet : “Today I learnt that Networking is an essential skill that complements your work and ensures that you learn more and achieve more. And I also learnt that Networking is not a bad word that women must shy away from”. Good show, Ridhi! And more power to you and all the 2 plus crore Indian women professionals who populate our workplaces!