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What It Takes: Speak Up, Step Up, Move Up
A Modern Woman's Guide to Success in Business
By Amy Henry
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Amelia Henry
All rights reserved.
Work It, Baby
The Power of Networking
There was a time, earlier in my career, when I assumed that if I simply worked hard, kept my head down, and stayed out of office politics, I'd get ahead. I believed, as many women do, that my effort and talent would speak for themselves. Promotions and raises would steadily come my way as my boss saw the fruits of my labor. So, I spent most days hunkered down in my cube or working diligently at client sites. Forget going to lunch with colleagues or spending a few minutes at the beginning of my day to have coffee in the break room. I was too busy writing proposals, updating project plans, and creating detailed PowerPoint presentations.
As time passed, I began to notice an annoying little phenomenon: the men around me were going to lunch. They were leaving early to go golf, and they were yakking in the boss's office about the latest football scores. More annoying still, they certainly didn't seem to be suffering professionally because of it. As for most of the women around me (well, the few who existed in the predominately male technology environment), they operated more like I did, and they, too, seemed to be working harder — or at least longer — than most of the men. We all seemed to harbor the same "If I don't do it, it won't get done" attitude. We were always focused on the work, and we disappeared into our little worlds to churn out the best possible results. Yes, we emerged triumphant, expectations met. But there was one big mistake we all made: we were confident that our work — in and of itself — was the single driver to boost us up the career ladder.
We were wrong. We were suckers.
I realized sooner rather than later, thankfully, that moving up is not just about the work you do but also about whom you know and who knows what you are doing. In other words, women need to develop a network of smart, influential people who are familiar with their skills and accomplishments, who provide career advice, and who alert them to professional opportunities. Building this network requires not just getting out of your office but adjusting your communication style and channels — how you express yourself and to whom — so that you connect with and impress the most influential people, those who can promote you, approve projects, listen to and act on your ideas, and accommodate your requests. Some call such deliberate behavior "politicking," and they may be right. But it's not a bad thing. Networking is also not a social, side activity but a conscious effort to connect with people who can, in a variety of ways, assist your career.
Some of you are probably rolling your eyes at the mere notion of playing the networking game. Perhaps you despise the concept and think networking and politicking are insincere, flirtatious, two-faced, brownnosing behaviors. After all, a woman's work and talent should stand on their own. Or perhaps you already know you should be networking but have struggled with just how to initiate relationships.
Whether you deem yourself above networking or are simply confused by it, think of networking as a business tool that helps you build a fourth relationship category. You already have friends and family and, perhaps, a significant other. Now you need business connections — work associates with whom business is the unabashed basis of your relationship, people with whom you discuss company news, industry trends, business tactics, and topics particular to your line of work. Some of these business connections will become social friends, but at the end of the day most of these relationships are about work, and these people won't have the same loyalty to you as family and friends. Business connections are strategic relationships, for both you and the other person.
Unless you go out of your way to initiate and cultivate these professional relationships, they will not exist. They will dwindle, and then the only person available to help you move up will be, well, you. And you can't move up alone.
Networking Is Not a Dirty Word
Diane Danielson, founder of the Downtown Women's Club, a women's networking organization, points out that too many women mistakenly consider networking a superficial way to sell themselves or as lightweight chitchat that lets them "bond" with colleagues. Wrong!
First, networking is not about going to organized happy hours to dole out your phone number and collect as many business cards as you can stuff into your purse. And it does not have to be some insincere, phony activity like sorority rush (although I must admit that, when I was in college, pretending to be interested in a rushee's conversation about where she purchased her larger-than-life floral bow did prepare me for conversing with strangers in the real world).
Networking is not a card grab or a brainless gab but an effective way to meet people. It is no more underhanded than going to a party, to a bar, or on-line to meet someone you want to date. Networking is serious business because it gives you access to information and people that can improve your career in the short and long term. If you refuse to believe in networking's value or to treat it like a serious business tool, then my message to you is this: I'll see you in ten years, when you're still sitting at the same desk in the same job and I'm your boss's boss.
Still not convinced of the power of networking? Then try to think of it from a different angle. The reality is that networking is no more than building strong relationships with people, and that's something many women not only do naturally but better than most men. The trick is doing it in a professional context and in a manner that both men and women can relate and respond to.
If you want to move up, networking is simply necessary. And even the most introverted and shy among us can master it. One of my favorite, and most palatable, takes on networking is to approach it as research. It's as much about collecting data as it is about talking and sharing. Think of it as productive gossip: a way to learn about important topics related to your company and your industry (and ultimately your career) from coworkers, managers, and business contacts.
* What it takes: Drop the networking bias. Networking is no more than building relationships, researching, and conversing with colleagues. There's nothing distasteful about that.
Network Outside Your Immediate Sphere of Influence
Think of network not just as a verb but as a noun: your network, a concrete entity that you structure one lunch, one cocktail party, one conversation at a time. That network consists of several levels, not just people to interact with every day. Ian Hollingworth, my primary client contact at Quadrem, a company that runs an electronic marketplace for the mining industry, puts it this way: the workplace is not a pure meritocracy. In other words, merit alone won't allow you to move up. Men know this; women find it hard to accept because it seems unfair. When I worked with Ian I was connected from the highest levels of the company to the "get-the-job-done" level, as he likes to say. Ian thinks my company-wide network helped me excel, and I have to agree. Not only did it help me accomplish day-to-day tasks, it also gave me an opportunity to sell my company's services to other Quadrem departments, which I did.
Also, recognize that networking is not just about the person you are speaking with, but that person's own extended network and contacts. Once you establish a relationship with one person, you have access to his or her network, and so on and so on.
* What it takes: Don't limit yourself to networking in only one division of a company. Maintain contacts throughout an organization, and your field of opportunity widens.
Relationships do not replace quality work, but in my opinion, quality work alone will not necessarily further your career. Networking is as important as the work itself.
In one of my performance reviews while I was working on a project in Atlanta for BellSouth, my account director, Janie, cautioned me, "Amy, while your performance is great, I have one word of advice. You need to learn to play up." When I asked what she meant, she said that I needed to start associating myself — and socializing — with people above me at the company. I already had a lot of work friends, ranging from administrative assistants to the consultants I managed, but most of them worked for me or were at my job level. Janie told me I was in a dangerous spot by avoiding the so-called big boys. "If you are going to spend time outside of the office with colleagues, make sure they are the right people," she said again. By "right," Janie meant superiors who have the power to promote you.
Initially, I was frustrated by her comment and thought she was telling me to kiss up to management. I had spent a lot of time not only on my own workload but also getting to know the programmers and other consultants who worked for me, making sure I was more than just a faceless account manager who barked orders. The relationship building was paying off, and I not only enjoyed my colleagues but also was working well with them to meet client deadlines ahead of schedule — something people before me had difficulty accomplishing. People knew me as a person, not just some demanding "bitch" who showed up and gave commands whenever she needed something. My relationships with my colleagues helped me exceed the client's expectations, which meant the client was available as a company reference to other potential customers, which kept my bosses at home happy, too.
I wanted credit for that, among other accomplishments, but — and this is when I came to understand what Janie meant — those accomplishments did not matter unless someone in a decision-making position knew about them and could associate my name and face with them. If I wanted to be promoted, and I did, I had to spend more time with people who had power over my next assignment, my next promotion, and my future. And why is this important? Because if the right people don't know you are doing the work, you'd better believe that someone else will take credit for it. (We'll get more into the importance of making yourself — and your work — known in chapter seven.)
Janie did not leave me to my own devices. She invited me to participate in presentations to clients as well as to the executive management team, and she included me in gatherings outside the office with the more senior crowd. When the executives from our company came to Atlanta to meet with my client, BellSouth, Janie invited me to join them for dinner to discuss client issues. Before that dinner, senior management had no idea who I was — they didn't even know my name, much less what I did for the company. It was the first time senior people heard about how I, and not my boss, was taking care of our customers. I guarantee you, this was not the last time I got out of my office and into the world. My networking up had officially begun.
* What it takes: Recognize the value of creating relationships with superiors who have the power to promote you.
Playing up means extending your network to people who are above you in the chain of command. Playing down means networking with everyone else: colleagues and subordinates, even people in other departments. It's been said that the best way to get to the boss is to befriend his or her administrative assistant, because the assistant controls the boss's schedule. Sometimes, the people who have power and valuable information to share are not necessarily the ones with fancy titles or big offices. At one healthcare client I worked with, I came to realize that a mid-level manager in his late twenties, Kelly, loved to keep his hand on the pulse of all aspects of the company: who was promoted, who had quit, who was handed a new assignment. It was almost a hobby for him, and finding out what he knew became a habit for me as well. Whenever I came to town to visit my client, my first stop — before I sat down with my client, the chief operating officer — was to Kelly's cubicle. Kelly filled me in on the hot issues of the day: who was moving up, who was moving out, what problems everyone was moaning about. By chatting with Kelly first, I was always more prepared to meet with executives and better able to target my company's services to meet their needs.
* What it takes: Building relationships with influential players in the organization is valuable, regardless of title and rank.
Network Outside Your Company
You should also develop a web of contacts and professional friends outside your organization. Its mere existence will make you a stronger player inside your company because when you have an external network, you do not feel quite as shackled to your current employer. Just ask one businesswoman:
The stronger your network of people outside your company, the more power you have inside your company. I am in a job today that I know I can quit if I so desire, and for whatever reason. I can walk out of this building and have a job tomorrow, and I never have to post my resume on-line. Always be in a position where you are not desperate. My boss and my colleagues know I choose to be here; they do not choose me to be here. That is power.
If lawyers only networked with other lawyers, how would they find new clients? My position in the technology sector does not mean I should reach out only to people in my profession; experts in other fields may have fresh ideas, perspectives, and opportunities to pass on. A good reason to find helpful people outside your immediate industry circle comes from Trish Murphy, a singer in Austin, Texas. While Trish has a rich network of fellow performers, her mentor — the person who gives her more career advice than anyone — is a retired female technology executive. Instead of focusing on Trish's art, the mentor helps Trish focus on keeping that art a profitable business. "I've learned that the music business is not that different from other industries," says Trish. "My mentor may be in technology, but she has actually helped me create business opportunities for myself." What's more, by having a mentor outside her industry, Trish says she can be more honest and open, and she gets a truly objective perspective — something she might not get from a fellow musician.
I recently saw the value of cross-industry networks when I spoke to a local group of young entrepreneurs. Every few months, local business owners from all types of companies get together, sit around tables, and talk about their respective businesses' problems. They swap ideas and expertise. The president of an engineering company may have a marketing idea for a local restaurant owner, and vice versa. At the very least, all the entrepreneurs get a fresh perspective about how to grow their own company.
* What it takes: Establish relationships with people outside your company and industry.
Listen Up and Don't Interrupt
Whether you play up or play down or play outside your office, you must always listen. The good news is that women tend to be better and more patient listeners than men because as girls we're taught that it's rude to interrupt other people when they talk. While speaking your mind in many work situations is crucial to moving up, it is also important to listen even if you are not fascinated by or in agreement with what a person has to say. When it comes to building your network, listening is invaluable, and sometimes you need to listen and nod even if, in your head, you couldn't care less about what someone is saying. Follow the 80-20 rule: listen 80 percent of the time and speak 20 percent. Just being listened to makes other people feel valued and "right." Also, the more you listen — and the less you interrupt — the more information people reveal. Without even uttering a word you can glean important information to help you get ahead.
I first learned this lesson in one of the restaurants where I was a waitress during high school. I always let my customers be right, even if I knew they ordered fettuccini but they insisted they ordered angel hair pasta. I didn't disagree about silly stuff because I had my eye on the long-term goal: a fat tip. My brother, on the other hand, laughs as he remembers his brief time as a waiter at the same restaurant. If the customer said something that pissed him off, he told the customer just that. He was up for a fight and came home ranting and raving about what ridiculous requests people made. As a result, his waitering career lasted all of one day.
I do not want to say that listening means you must always hold your tongue — just that in professional situations, you must pick your battles. If the topic at hand is business related and you disagree with someone's take on a particular strategy or statement, first assess if it is appropriate to disagree. If your opinion is based on your particular expertise, if you have credibility to challenge the statement, and if what you are disagreeing with is worth the potential fallout, then it is okay to step in and appropriately flex your professional muscle.
Excerpted from What It Takes: Speak Up, Step Up, Move Up by Amy Henry. Copyright © 2004 Amelia Henry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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