The diversity of your professional network matters just as much as your own performance in influencing your ability to move up or across the organization.
A few years ago, Jennifer (her name has been changed of course), one of my coaching clients, came to me to help her “unblock” her career. Jennifer is a Black woman who had just turned 28. At the time she was an Assistant Director in the Finance function of a large consumer products company who had risen rapidly from her entry-level Analyst job after college seven years earlier. Armed with a MBA from a highly respected business school, Jennifer had been a Director for the last three years and felt like her upward movement had stalled. I remember her saying “based on my track record, I should have been a Vice President by now! Why can’t I get ahead?” (Don’t snicker. You’ve asked yourself the very same question more than once or twice.)
During our initial sessions, she shared her performance reviews with me and they were simply stellar. I also inquired about her reputation in the company and the strength of key relationships with important stakeholders. Two points quickly emerged. First, it turned out that 99% of the strong relationships she had in this organization were with other Black people. Second, Jennifer saw nothing amiss about the first point. I’ve found throughout my HR career that such a view is by no means uncommon. However, as a person-of-color it can work against your career aspirations when all the people you know are other people-of-color. It can potentially leave you in place where you too might feel stuck. Why you might ask? Well let me explain.
Most organizations don’t officially publish their rules for promoting people, but for many it entails a complex concoction of spoken and unspoken do’s and don’ts. Do work smart, deliver superior and consistent results, demonstrate your leadership, be innovative, make the clients happy, manage the office politics, and get along with your colleagues. Don’t piss off your boss, hog all the glory, steal from the company, harass your staff members, or get sent to Human Resources to get fixed for failing to do the do’s. These actions are the usual suspects in terms of individual activity that determine or derail career growth.
We also know that social networks play an equally important role in fostering valuable career outcomes like promotions and increased compensation. Building and sustaining a network helps individuals to acquire and grow their social capital. Raider and Burt (1996) describe social capital as a set of interconnections or links among various people within a network that provide a competitive advantage or return on investment in the form of access to information, projects, jobs, resources, career progression, and other opportunities.
The more social capital you have, the greater the likelihood that you have supportive relationships (e.g., mentors, sponsors, key connections) with people in your network who play important roles in working on your behalf. A strong network provides developmental feedback, encouragement, and sound career advice. Network members work on your behalf by advocating for your interests and reinforcing positive impressions in the mind of others often when you’re not in the room to hear them.
Frequently, these behind the curtain conversations are where the decisions are really made as to who receives promotion, cross-company movement, and/or relocation. And the dialog often involves people who don’t look like you. In these private moments your performance history, professional reputation, perceived gravitas, projects, past mistakes, personality, temperament (or temper as might be the case), development needs, and latest/greatest accomplishments are all up for discussion. The conversation will certainly veer into where you stand compared to your peers. In case you didn’t know, the competition is tough!
Beyond The Basics
In general, upward movement has become a more difficult exercise for everyone over the last 35 years. Rajan and Wulf (2003) examined more than 300 U.S. companies across industries and found that regardless of changes in size, management ranks have become flatter. Whether through the implementation of new technology, economic distress, mergers and acquisitions, or shareholder activism, the elimination of management jobs simply leaves fewer positions for employees to fill through promotion.
The delayering of an organization’s internal structure can still lead to new opportunities, however the competition for these dwindling critical jobs has increased exponentially. This kind of corporate landscape often requires the creation of professional networks that can give an employee a real competitive advantage. Your network will often play just as important a role as your expertise and capabilities through the management of information flows, forming internal alliances, and being affiliated with those in power.
This is where things start to get a little more interesting. As someone who identifies as Black, you may have noticed that the higher you rise in rank the more it seems there are fewer Black people at your level. Your imagination is not playing tricks on your brain. The percentage number of Blacks compared to other racial groups begins to drop dramatically the further up you go as illustrated by a 2014 survey by Diversity MBA magazine.
Black Leadership in Corporate America
(Based on 300 U.S. companies with an average size of 30,000 employees)
So let’s revisit Jennifer’s situation. She wanted to make the jump from Director of Finance to Vice President. While she had excellent performance on her side, her social network was not diverse enough to lend support to her cause. Everyone that Jennifer has built up a large amount of social capital with is also Black, so at the Director level and at each level above her there is only potentially less than one out of every ten employees who can sing her praises. In her company, black representation at senior levels was far lower than the percentages reflected in the Diversity MBA survey.
Many can relate to this challenge. “In the corporate world, Black professionals, particularly in the middle management tiers of an organization, may not see another Black person on their team or department,” said April Powers, managing director of First Impression Rx, a diversity and inclusion/cultural competency consulting company. “Effectively managing your career today involves building strong relationships that span the boundaries of gender, race, language, culture, level, education, geographic location, and communication style.”
Clearly Jennifer needed a larger population of advocates with favorable perceptions of her who had direct ties to the decision makers that would support her career advancement. Working together we were able to co-create an action plan to diversify her network. The fundamental principles in her plan can be applied to anyone looking to broaden his or her sphere of influence.
Building a Wider Network
There are a many different ways to expand and diversify your professional network and increase your social capital. I recommend five relatively simple steps you can take immediately as part of your personal action plan.
Get A Different Perspective. A great way to open up your network is to connect with people who have other viewpoints and experiences. Ethan ‘Tony’ Loney, vice president of diversity & inclusion at NBCUniversal said, “You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and move beyond the familiar. If you’re a black man in a company with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) take the opportunity to join the Women’s Networking Group in addition to an African-American ERG. You’ll gain rich insights from others who have walked a different path and benefit from fostering new connections with individuals who will share tools and techniques you can use for your benefit.”
Be Ready To Share Information. The Bible tells us it’s better to give than to receive. Most of us know the value of obtaining useful information, but it’s often better to be a provider of information. Uzzi and Dunlap (2005) describe the importance of being an Information Broker. You play a key role within your social network by sharing information that brings members of your circle closer to you or to each other. Your value in to the network increases and your visibility rises because you’ve proven to be a trusted resource to those connected to you.
Find More Than One Mentor. Having more than one mentor is somewhat akin to voting on Election Day. It’s best for mentees to seek out good mentors early and to engage them in multiple venues to paraphrase John Van Buren. Growth comes from leveraging the knowledge, experience, and skill sets of others that you wish to attain for yourself. However there is no one individual that knows everything. According to Ms. Powers, “Mentees of color often make the mistake of asking the same company executive to be their mentor. Not only will the executive have limited bandwidth (unable to advise all those who desire counsel), but a single Black executive can’t provide them with all the answers. That individual can only draw on his/her personal experience and what he/she has learned. Mentees need to branch out.” Multiple mentors are needed to get effective guidance across a wide spectrum of professional and personal goals.” Multiple mentors are needed to get effective guidance across a wide spectrum of professional and personal goals.
Let Your Passions Guide You. One of the reasons that people join groups/clubs/associations or attend special events is to be around individuals who share their interests and values. Use these opportunities to build new relationships. Mr. Loney cited several examples of how his social and professional interests extend his network. He said “Good health has become a more significant priority in my life. I recently made it a point to participate in a NBCU Health Expo. While I already know quite a number of people in the organization, that event has allowed me to create some new connections with people I didn’t realize also shared my interests. It has expanded the size of my network.”
Be More Social With Your Social Media. For some LinkedIn is a great networking tool and for others it’s a barely necessary evil. Identifying and finding people you might wish to connect with based on job experience, academic history, or common areas of interest is fairly straightforward. However, once a connection has been established it’s all too easy to put it out of mind the same way people once put the business cards they collected in a rolodex and forgot about them. Instead use your new connections as a chance to actually engage people in conversations. Occasionally meet someone for coffee or lunch. Share articles, posts, tools and resources that will help them solve their problems.
Keep Building Your Personal Brand
In the article “Make it Personal,” I explain how an individual’s personal brand is a reflection of your reputation as it is the summation of how you are consistently perceived by multiple stakeholders who either know you or have heard about you. By maintaining strong relationships with internal and external contacts you make a significant contribution to your own career success. The key component in raising your visibility is to move beyond the superficial. You need to arm others with a positive story to tell. You can do this by providing real value to them through the information you share and by offering resources that help solve their problems.
Your network can start growing today if you commit to taking one action each day, each week, or each month. Extend an invitation to breakfast or lunch, set up an informational interview to learn about another business or product, or call someone just to keep in touch. Do something beneficial that expands your personal and professional horizons. Good things eventually come to those who do good things.
This article also appears as a post on The Social Scholar courtesy of Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D, Vice President. Learning & Organizational Development at ESPN.
Dr. Bouvier Williams is an expert and speaker in Talent Management, Leadership Development, and Personal Branding. He has worked for Global Fortune 1000 organizations in the Life Sciences, Media & Entertainment, Financial Services, and Professional Services industries.
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