Monday, June 23, 2008

'Playing the Game' or 'Politics'. How do women approach networking in a large company?

"If you go out to build a network, people can see you coming from a mile away".

This comment came in response to a question I asked last Thursday evening at the excellent event at HSBC's offices high above Canary Wharf.

The question, "is networking in a large organisation different for women to men and do women need to be more proactive or act differently in any way?", was prompted by a comment made in conversation a couple of weeks ago. A business colleague, formerly a senior woman in a male dominated industry, told me there is a strong need for networking support for women in corporates. When she was in post, she and a colleague had been told that to succeed they needed to 'play the game'. The person who said this meant that they should build a network but the way it was phrased put both women off networking for a long time.

In a recent 'Inspired Leaders Network' event, Kanya King MBE, founder and CEO of MOBO talked about how essential networking had been to her career, and how she had almost got it wrong herself in her early days at work. "One of the worst mistakes I made was to stay head down in the business in the early days and not go out to events and network with others in the industry."

During last week's presentations, we were similarly left in no doubt of the importance of network building for women in industry. The main speaker, Lois Grady, a former Executive VP of the US finance company Hartford Life, told how she would build her connections with everyone she worked with, "from the security guard to the President of the Company." Talking to Lois afterwards, she told me how she followed this ethos throughout her career, showing respect and consideration for people of all positions and engaging whereever she could.

A key thread thoughout Lois's talk, was about the importance of working in an environment and culture which fits with your own outlook and working preferences, and then immersing yourself in that culture.

"If you're there, give your best.What the heck, otherwise you're just breathing air", said Lois. ""You have to know the company's business and operations. Know your boss's agenda and your boss's boss's agenda."

Meanwhile Kirstie Galloway, Global Head of Cross Products and Cross Utilities IT at HSBC, gave her three top tips to succeed as a woman in a corporate environment. Once again, the importance of networking underpinned everything she said.

Kirstie's three tips were:

"Be brave. You need to take the opportunities that come your way and, although you won't always succeed, you will be noticed.

"Always act with respect. You don't have to like everyone you work with but it is important to find a way to get on with them. It is important to always treat others with respect. Don't burn your bridges, even if you think you will never meet them again - people talk, and your reputation can proceed you.

"Build your network of contacts. Knowledge of your industry should be as wide as it is deep."

The networking theme continued as Karin Cook, Global Head of Derivative Operations at HSBC told us of the importance of role models, whether above or below you in the organisation's hierarchy. "Look at them, learn from them, ask them."

With such an emphasis on networking throughout the evening, I expected quite a lively response to my question.

I was surprised at the response. The panel looked dumbfounded at the question and responses surrounded social events, sports and being friends with workers rather than the importance of feedback, mentors and building connections across departments.

Is this where the issue is with 'networking'? Talk about 'building networks', 'developing connections' or even 'social capital' and you are on firm ground. As soon as you speak about 'networking', it is seen as a forced, even false and manipulative activity for one's own end. Maybe this is why it's seen as a 'game' or 'playing politics'.

I discussed this with Lois Grady after the event. I explained that, to me, networking is about sharing expertise, ideas, experience and connections to raise each of our potential above that which we could achieve on our own. Lois burst to life, agreeing completely with the definition and its importance in the workplace.

How can we change the perception of networking in the workplace so that it is seen as a positive, constructive activity rather than manipulative and self-serving? Do women need to 'network' differently to men in the workplace, or should everyone simply take the common-sense advice we heard last week?

1 comment:

  1. Servane Mouazan12:37 pm

    From experience, I would say that networking in a large organisation is different for women to men if you WANT it be this way! The secret of fascinating networking, from grassroots communities, political organisations, local campaigning groups, to sme and large companies is to nurture a positive assumption towards “the other” from the outset: “i am a valuable individual with a lot to give and people around here have equally so much to share. Together we learn and generate human wealth. (This could be translated as a nice coffee at the business canteen, the sharing of resources or a project co-production, it could also result in total trust and the generation of financial wealth!).
    This moment of true connectedness is a moment of shared leadership.

    Whilst we spent time focusing on silos, discrepancies, bad players and selfish opportunists, we loosing track of the bigger picture: beyond genders, there are individuals who simply want to feel that sense of connectedness and who cares if you don’t close a deal straight away, you gain in emotions, knowledge, skills, incisive questions and wisdom. This is what we need to look for…
    Why not shifting the challenge to men, as we are here… We organise numerous events that put innovative women forward and the minute you have the word “women in the event’s title, I see numbers of men in the attendance decreasing. I’d love to see more men supporting their peers, bosses or colleagues, men brave enough to mix with intelligent women, who, remember, share a variety of behaviours (a women’s group is as diverse as any other group. Some ladies are bold, some are shy, some are charming, some are abrupt, some are connecting, some can’t be asked…!)

    Someone just recommended me on linkedin today. It was a very generous tribute from a fascinating peer, after a few pieces of work we achieved together. For one moment, I realised that we are responsible for the memories and the emotion we leave in people’s mind when we network. Our duty is to probably give people a bit of serendipity the minute we talk to them. If not, let’s just shut up… and forget about it.