Women should work harder at networking

Building a network of contacts isn't 'calculating': all top leaders do it, says Heather McGregor.

by Heather McGregor
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2015

Who were the last 10 people that you sought counsel from regarding business matters? You should write them down and then reflect on them, especially if, like me, you are a woman. Knowing who comprises your business network, and whether that network is doing the job, is something I would argue that every leader needs to know, and every female leader in particular.

This idea that women need to work harder at building their network than men do, for whom it seems to come more naturally, can be found in almost every area of management theory. In 2014 Thomson Reuters sponsored a report by the organisation Women of Influence that highlighted seven challenges it thought faced women as they advanced in their careers. One of these was lack of ‘strategic networking’. Leaving aside my horror of the use of the word network as a verb, they are of course completely right.

I outlined my approach to building a strategic network to an EMBA class at the London Business School last month and a student raised his hand. Is this not rather calculating, he asked. Of course it is! That is what strategic means. I build networks for a reason and I put dedicated effort and energy into doing so. It doesn’t mean that I don’t also hang out with my friends, and you don’t have to be a business contact to be my friend (although it helps). But women need to be more ‘calculating’ on how they build their networks if they are to succeed in business, and their relatively undeveloped networks are almost certainly one of the reasons why there are not more women in positions of leadership.

Herminia Ibarra’s new book, Act Like a Leader, Think like a Leader, published in January, has an excellent chapter on why building a network is critical for every leader, and why, as you climb up the ladder, you need to build out your network in different directions. Ibarra, a leading professor at Insead, also, critically, shows you how to map your own network and evaluate its effectiveness. The third chapter, entitled ‘Network across and out’, is where you will find the request to name your 10 most recent business conversations.

Mapping your own network is a very good start to identifying where the gaps are, and then how you should try to close them. (If you want to get even more analytical about your network, and create some natty graphics to illustrate the roles of the people in it, have a look at mypersonalboardroom.com, a network diagnostic tool created by Zella King from Henley Business School.)

Ibarra and I were among the relatively few women building our own networks ‘across and out’ at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in January, where students of leadership are able to study their subjects in their natural habitat. For me, it is not enough to crunch the numbers to see which leader has generated the greatest return on capital employed. No, I also want to look at their plumage, their body language, their behaviour when corralled in a confined space with their own species. There is no greater opportunity for the David Attenboroughs of the world of leadership than Davos in January. Often criticised by those who do not attend as a talking shop, it nevertheless has proved to be the crucible of many sustained and beneficial initiatives. But, like Attenborough himself, you have to put life and limb at risk and see things first hand. Existing on coffee and canapés for a week, with no sleep at all, is not for the fainthearted. But you will have your brain stimulated, a sort of intellectual Viagra, and most of all, you will add to your network.

Why do I bother to show up? Because I, like lots of businesswomen, need to make the effort to reinforce and extend my network. Much was made of the fact that (despite recurring initiatives by the WEF) only 17% of the delegates this year were women. Why is that? Is it because the WEF isn’t ‘female-friendly’ enough? (What would that mean, anyway? Breast-feeding stations on every corner? I don’t think so.) I would suggest that at least one reason is that women in the organisations that attend the WEF don’t recognise the importance of face-to-face interaction for their careers and their businesses, and don’t lobby internally to be one of the delegates sent.

Ibarra defines the building of a network as ‘the creation of a circle of contacts that can provide insight, information and other resources’ and there is no doubt that women need to do this.

She says that most people who do not put time and effort into building a network often give their personal values as the reason, as if a network was something to be ashamed of – it’s not. Her other point, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is that building your network will be much easier once you realise it is an integral part of your job. It’s tough being a woman in business. Like men, we have only 168 hours in the week and a lot of demands are made on that time. But carving out some of it to build a network should be an essential, not a nice-to-have, tool of leadership.

Heather McGregor is the author of Career Advice for Ambitious Women and the CEO of communications executive search specialist Taylor Bennett. She writes the Mrs Moneypenny column in the FT

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