Your browser is not supported. please upgrade to the latest version of Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari or Microsoft Edge.

The Secrets of Successful Female Networkers

02/18/2020

One oft-cited reason why more female executives don’t advance to top management jobs is their lack of access to informal organizational and industry networks. Some people blame unconscious bias: High-ranking men connect more easily with other men. Others cite professional and personal obligations, from office housekeeping to child-rearing, that disproportionately fall to women, leaving them less time to develop professional relationships.

But some female leaders do establish strong networks—and they win greater influence and more-senior positions as a result. What are they doing differently?

A new study sheds light on their strategies. “I was talking with many women about how to improve their networks, the challenges they face, and what they and their organizations could do better, and I realized that all the studies on the issue were pretty old and narrow,” explains Inga Carboni, a professor at William & Mary’s Mason School of Business and the study’s lead author. “I couldn’t answer their questions.”

The researchers analyzed data collected from 16,500 men and women in more than 30 organizations across a range of industries over the past 15 years. Then they interviewed hundreds of female executives. This led them to identify four characteristics that distinguish the networking behaviors of more-successful women from those of their peers. In some cases those matched the behaviors of high-performing men; in others there were subtle but important differences.

When shaping their professional networks, top women were:

Efficient.

Studies, including the new one, show that women generally absorb more collaborative demands in the workplace than their male peers do. But the female managers with the strongest networks “recognize that every ‘yes’ means a ‘no’ to something else,” says Babson College’s Rob Cross, one of Carboni’s coauthors. He notes that one Silicon Valley executive he knows has adopted that idea as her mantra. Although these successful female networkers might feel an identity-driven desire and a stereotype-influenced pressure to help colleagues out and be a team player, they try to resist. They prune nonessential appointments from their calendars, deflect low-priority decisions and requests, run streamlined meetings, insist on efficient email norms, and set aside time for reflection and high-level thinking. At the same time, they make the most of their collaborative strengths and inclinations by working with others in a way that establishes or enhances key relationships and ups their visibility.

“At every level in organizations, women are more likely to be sought out for advice,” Carboni says. “And when asked about the downsides of saying no, every woman I interviewed said they’d feel bad.” But she emphasizes that the research is clear: The female executives who rise to the top are “more strategic and thoughtful” about how they spend their time. Organizations can do their part by tracking unseen collaborative work, ensuring that it’s evenly spread among male and female employees, and pushing all leaders, but especially women, to unabashedly prioritize their most important tasks.

Nimble.

The researchers’ data shows that most women’s relationships, particularly those with female peers, are stickier than men’s, growing stronger, more mutual, and more interwoven over time. Carboni and Cross note that this can occasionally be a positive—for example, an old contact might offer a new opportunity or employment prospect. But if you work in a dynamic organization that requires rapid adjustments to changing demands (and who doesn’t nowadays?), always relying on the same people can hurt your performance.

Successful female networks are more fluid. High-ranking women know when to deemphasize old connections in favor of new ones (whether by proactively cutting ties or by simply failing to maintain contact). For example, says Cross, “when you’re at an inflection point at work or are embarking on a new project, you want to think about your goals and who will help you reach them—whether those goals are political (gaining early access to opinion leaders), developmental (supplementing skills gaps), innovation-oriented (searching for new insights), or related to best practices (finding people who know efficiencies).” He acknowledges that some women find this inauthentic, even Machiavellian, but notes that men interpret the same behavior as putting the work first. He says it’s OK to have a “tenure bell curve” in professional relationships. Women should, of course, maintain some long-known advisers. But they should consistently initiate new connections, and organizations can help them by instituting processes such as network reviews at the start of new assignments or during performance evaluations.

    Gender Equity/Diversity

Load older comments...

Loading comments...

Add comment

06

November 2019

One worker in three considers leaving their job because of stress

12

March 2019

UBS says NASA's all-women spacewalk is a 'giant leap' with 'significant investment implica...

10

June 2019

Target is expanding parental leave, including for hourly and part-time workers

12

June 2020

WFH: Six pillars of effective homeworking

13

March 2019

How the biggest names in tech stack up on backup childcare benefits

You've Been Timed Out

Please login to continue