When I was in my 20s, I always thought that if you worked hard and aced your assignments, you'd naturally move up in the workplace.
For a while, that's exactly what transpired. But one day, something happened to me that inevitably happens to almost everyone in the workplace. My old boss left and a new one came in. And even though I tried harder to impress him, putting together a special project that won lots of praise from people outside, he was ... indifferent. Looking back, I realize none of it was personal. I wasn't his hire and we just didn't have much rapport. When you click, you click, but when you don't, well, someone moves on. I did, and I've never looked back.
The whole episode was a huge lesson for me. You can work as hard as you can and you can still feel like you're going nowhere. That's when it began to dawn on me how critical it is to not only be talented at your job but also talented at "winning the room." Nurturing the connections above and around you is essential to your success, whether you're in a big company or striking out on your own. Could I have done more to "win the room" when the changeover happened? Absolutely. Did I? No. I just buried my head in more work and hoped my new boss would notice how great I was.
I see this a lot with young women, too. They put their heads down, do the work, socialize among themselves, and think, somehow, nurturing connections outside matters little in landing the next job, promotion or investment. Sallie Krawcheck, the founder of Ellevest, a robo-adviser that caters to women's financial needs, says some young women have told her networking for your next job felt like "cheating."
As Sallie explained this in a previous interview with Radiate: "For some reason, particularly young women, when I talk about [networking], they say, 'Well, that's cheating. I want to do this on my own. I don't want to do it through my contacts and connections' ... You would be shocked by the number who say that ... I'm like, 'Well, how do you think the guys are doing it?'"
Sallie says for all her own expertise, she also fell victim to the same affliction.
It happened at her last big corporate job on Wall Street, in which she ran Merrill Lynch's wealth-management business, part of Bank of America. Despite making billions in profit, she was sacked two years after taking the job. "It was a random act of violence," she says. "You're like: 'I work hard. I'm excelling. What the heck?'"
Why do we rely on our work and expect it alone will speak on our behalf? By viewing networking as so-called "cheating" we are in fact cheating ourselves out of some amazing opportunities. This taboo that we have developed about networking is causing us to miss out on the benefit of building these relationships, with all the access to funding, mentorship, and referrals that they bring.
"Women do a really shitty job of building informal networks," Kat Cole the Group President of FOCUS Brands, observed in a recent Radiate interview. She continued, "Men are more adept at building informal networks, going to grab that beer, going to have a round of golf and just connecting with people socially."
But why is that? Why are we so bad at it? Women are just as sociable and gregarious as their male counterparts and yet for some reason we hold ourselves back.
One of the main reasons is the disparity of responsibilities outside of the workplace. Statistically, women are much more likely to bear the brunt of the responsibility for household tasks and caring for loved ones; this restricts their time for socializing that creates the foundation for networking.
Kat also notes some issues that can occur when women do attempt to network. "Most of the people in the office are men, and so building an 'informal network' with a bunch of men if you are a woman can create certain optic issues, at least in some women's minds," she said. These "optic issues" can make many women uncomfortable and are something that Guatam Gupta, CEO of Naturebox, calls a "stigma" that women sometimes feel. In a interview with Radiate he described how his female mentees were routinely asked out on dates by men they were networking or investing with.
So how do we move forward? Kat advises: "Take the time to chill, but to chill with interesting people outside of the professional environment. Be willing to talk about their hopes, their dreams, their goals because that will help the right people come to them." Guatam suggests approaching individuals with a proven track record of supporting female businesswomen because "you know that they are there to support you, they have the right ideals and values and they are not going to ask you out on a date!"
So take it from someone who has been there. Don't cheat yourself. Network and never look back.