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How Successful Women Get Ahead

As careers develop, women need to mine their networks and say no more often.

How Successful Women Get Ahead

Despite massive amounts of corporate diversity and implicit-bias training, less than 25 percent of all S&P managers are women, less than 5 percent of all CEOs are women, and less than 20 percent of board seats at S&P 500 companies are held by women.

Four female CEOs made the 2019 Harvard Business Review (HBR) list of the 100 Best Performing CEOs in the World, up from three the prior year. The November-December 2019 HBR issue highlighting the super CEOs included a short how-to piece, “The Secrets of Successful Female Networkers.” Designed to energize women at all levels, the advice summarized a research study whose lead author is a recognized networking expert: Inga Carboni, a former Fulbright scholar and professor at William & Mary’s Mason School of Business.

Carboni and fellow researchers collected data from more than 30 organizations and 16,500 people over 15 years and conducted several hundred interviews across a range of industries to answer the question: “What is the predominant driver of women’s relational disadvantages?” In non-scientific terms, the question could be stated: “What is it that highly competent and hard-working women are not doing that prevents them from getting to the C-suite?”

Networking—a word that provokes angst for many working mothers with too little time—is nonetheless an accepted principle for corporate success, in any field. Carboni’s book Connect the Dots has a blurb on Amazon claiming that “networking isn’t sleazy or manipulative”; instead it’s “leveraging real relationships built on genuine connection.” After her extensive research comparing the difference between male and female networking styles—how men and women “manage” their networks, as opposed to “make” them—Carboni came to some radical conclusions.

Everyone in business wants a sponsor, and successful men and women depend upon senior people who know about likely promotions, who identify and staff high-visibility projects, who themselves are connected to powerful people within and outside the organization. But here’s the gender difference based on Carboni’s interviews: “Women identified their sponsors as senior leaders who persuaded them to take on a new position, even when they doubted their own capability. Men described [sponsors] as senior leaders who facilitated access to opportunities by vouching for their capabilities.”

Translating from biz-speak: An interviewee with the XX chromosomes saw her sponsor as a person who could convince her of her own worth. The XY chromosomes interviewee saw his sponsor as a person who knew enough about the interviewee’s capabilities to be able to sell him.

Carboni’s study is grounded in the notion that networking must be both internal and external, a concept familiar to women in large organizations but less so in a small business. Whatever the size of one’s employer, however, women have been encouraged for decades to maintain and sustain relationships with others in their profession, their trade, and their community.

Here, too, the research shows a painful distinction between how the two genders view professional relationships, especially with peers. It’s painful because many women consider the following conclusion to be a plus, a value-added trait, for females: “Women tend to perceive their professional relationships as important for their own sake.” Female-to-female networks, according to the women interviewed, are often long-lasting, becoming increasingly personal over time. For men, the study concluded, “relationships are the backdrop through which work is accomplished.”

"Women tend to perceive their professional relationships as important for their own sake."
—Linda L. Holstein

Ambitious women should not bemoan the seeming disconnect between how they might see themselves (as “connectors”) versus how their successful male peers claim an ability to capitalize on relationships. Yet the section in Carboni’s research on churning goes even further in advising women to change their habits.

A critical component of network effectiveness, according to the study, is letting relationships that are no longer useful to your trajectory “go dormant.” That means a successful networker churns her relationships on a regular basis, not returning phone calls as quickly and not accepting lunch invites with contacts less relevant to her current goals than they might have once been.

Instead, the advice for women intent on success is to identify the new and expanded relationships she needs for her next transition and concentrate on those, rather than on the people she was networking with last year.

Churn or not, many of the less successful female professionals profiled by Carboni had a work habit that consistently held them back: They reported a “greater sense of obligation to respond to requests for their time and energy.” Men, by contrast, “rarely saw a downside to turning down a request for their time.” Rob Cross, a study co-author, cites the statistic that knowledge workers or leaders spend 85 percent or more of their time in a given week on e-mail, in meetings, or on the phone.

The most satisfied women leaders, whom Cross described as having mastered “collaborative overload,” could rise above feeling they had to be the most needed, the most prepared, the most influential. One highly placed female executive described the mantra: “Saying yes to something always means saying no to something else.”

The chief talent officer of Ford Motor Co., Julie Lodge-Jarrett, has an even better way of summarizing her networking expertise: “You can have a relationship for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” Remembering, and confirming, the reason appears to be a central component for effective networking.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes. holsteinmediation.com