Young people networking - building your network

“Sometimes, idealistic people are put off the whole business of networking as something tainted by flattery and the pursuit of selfish advantage. But virtue in obscurity is rewarded only in Heaven. To succeed in this world you have to be known to people.” – Sonia Sotomayor

Leveraging your network – leaders build their social capital   

Leaders know how to build and leverage their social capital. In other words, they know how to leverage their network. Networking is integral to developing yourself, your leadership, and your organisation. As such, it provides an opportunity to leverage learning, growth and advancement. Yet many professionals underestimate this leadership activity and its capacity to enable success. In fact, many of the global development clients I coach – particularly women – cringe at the thought of networking.

Networking can bring up strong reactions

Networking can evoke strong reactions from professionals, especially those working in global development – from the passionate enthusiasts who integrate it into their repertoire as a vital tool for making deals, finding the best jobs and talent and advancing their goals; to those who view it as politicking and/or schmoozing, which can feel inauthentic and disingenuous.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, there are distinct differences between males and females in their attitudes towards networking, and how to use it. In Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design for Women’s Leadership Development Programs, the authors, Ely, Ibarra, and Kolb say:

“We often observe that women are reluctant to engage in networking activities for at least two reasons. First, they experience networking as “inauthentic,” akin to “using people”… Second, many women find networking unappealing because they think they must engage in activities, such as the proverbial “playing golf,” that either do not interest them or are difficult to schedule given constraints in their lives outside of work.”


Shaking hands - networking in practice

Why network?

If you are a professional reading this, you probably understand the benefits of networking – at least in theory. We know from both research and practice that networking is essential for achieving your personal, professional and organisational goals. And it is an important part of a leader’s role. Hence it is critical to know how to grow and leverage your network.

As such, there are all sorts of benefits, ranging from sharing ideas and knowledge, identifying and capitalising on opportunities, making and leveraging connections, increasing confidence, raising your and/or your organization’s profile, obtaining resource – and the list goes on…

Ely, Ibarra, and Kolb’s research on women’s leadership development programs point to research showing that:

“Informal networks can shape career trajectories by regulating access to jobs; channeling the flow of information and referrals; creating influence and reputation; supplying emotional support, feedback, political advice, and protection; and increasing the likelihood and speed of promotion (e.g., Burt, 1992; Granovetter, 1985; Higgins & Kram, 2001; Ibarra, 1993; Podolny & Baron, 1997; Westphal & Milton, 2000).”

How are you doing – leveraging your network?

Before reading on – when was the last time you reviewed your network?

And here are some questions to think about –

  • On a scale of 1-10, how important is having a good network, to your ability to accomplish your goals?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the quality of your currently network?

So, how can you develop and leverage your network?


Professionals networking - sharing ideas

Developing and leveraging your network

Given the differences in attitude between males and females towards networking and its practical application, Ely, Ibarra, and Kolb say:

“Because women tend to have less access to sponsors and reap fewer returns from similar kinds of relationships and network positions relative to men… WLPs [Women’s Leadership Programs] must go beyond giving women generic tactical advice about how to build a strong network and equip them with networking strategies that take these differences into account.”

So let’s look at some recommendations to help you move forward.

5 recommendations to get started

1. Know your ‘why’ – when leveraging your network

Having a compelling reason for networking, tied to organisational goals and purpose, makes networking more appealing. When women see a higher or greater purpose in networking, they are more motivated to participate.

And if you are afraid of appearing to ‘use’ people – you can make it a mutually beneficial exchange, by helping others to develop themselves and their networks, or by acting as mentors or sponsors to other people.

2. Go deep and go wide

Go deep: Look for opportunities to develop a more profound relationship with key contacts – how can you deepen the relationships you have with your existing contacts? Getting to know your contacts better creates a deeper connection. Provide more opportunities for meaningful exchange. Invite people for coffee, or to events or entertainment opportunities, as well as to business meetings.

Go wide: Create more opportunities to meet and talk to key influential people in your networks – both within and outside the organisation and even the industry. And don’t forget that projects, task forces and committee work are ideal opportunities to network.

3. Connect

Find out what you have in common with key contacts, and use it to build closer relationships. As you know, there are business networks, industry groups, practice groups and communities of interest available in real life and online. Maybe you belong to a club or interest group that has nothing to do with work – e.g. yoga, poetry or politics. However, your common interest offers a starting point for connection that might lead you to referrals or to wisdom, insight or support that you can use at a strategic level in your organisation, or in your own development.

Just ask someone a question, or advice, or about their experience of an issue. Invite them for lunch or a coffee. Or offer them help, mentoring or assistance.

Ibarra and Hunter say “Aspiring leaders must learn to build and use strategic networks that cross organizational and functional boundaries, and then link them up in novel and innovative ways.”

Find a role model

Not everyone is a naturally good networker. However, it is a skill that can be learned, developed and acquired. So, seek out a great networker and watch them at work. Observe in detail what they do and say – and pick up some tips and behavioural patterns or habits that you can replicate. Try it out. It may feel alien and uncomfortable at first – but that’s when you know it’s working. Changing the habits of a lifetime isn’t easy, but it yields positive results that make it worthwhile. Practise, until it becomes natural to you. And don’t forget to discuss leveraging your network with a mentor or coach.

5. Spend time and commit to leveraging your network

Integrate networking into your daily life and commit to it. It is a vital part of your role as a leader, and is worth spending time and energy on.

In Harvard Business Review’s ‘How Leaders Create and Use Networks’ Ibarra and Hunter, say:

“effective business leaders spend a lot of time every day gathering the information they need to meet their goals, relying on informal discussions with a lot of people who are not necessarily in charge of an issue or task. They network in order to obtain information continually, not just at formal meetings.”

Networking may not give you a quick win, but building and leveraging your network over time will reap rewards. Therefore get good at networking, and you will find it both enjoyable and incredibly useful, both in your daily life and in your personal and career advancement.

In summary

I invite you to take a moment, to think about your network – is it growing and extending beyond the usual suspects? How are you leveraging your network?

If you or your organisation would like to review your networks and networking capacity, please get in touch.

If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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