Setting: a large dinner cruise ship set on one of the wealthier sides of town. The event is rented out for a couple who is celebrating a wedding reception. A few attendees know each other, most don’t.
Me: behind the bar, cleaning up after the rush of Mai Tai’s, Dirty Martini’s, or other complicated drinks I have to Google on my phone. Tall enough to reach the liquor, short enough to get ID’d by the guests.
The first and most important lesson I learned as a bartender on a luxurious cruise boat is that you are either invisible or you are the single most valued resource within miles in any direction. In the instance I am describing above, I was invisible, cleaning lipstick stains off of wine-glasses. There are two men left standing at the bar, talking. Here is the sum of their conversation:
“So what do you do?”
“I am a hedge-fund manager for Big Money Inc.”
“Oh awesome, yeah, I do _____ at Little Money Inc.”
*the conversation continues around technicalities of the business, where each is at in their career, mutual friends, etc.. The man who works at Big Money Inc. is not very invested in the conversation (no pun intended), as assuming this exact conversation happens to him 3 times a day. At least.*
“Well it’s been great to meet you Man – do you mind if I grab your LinkedIn?”
*Big Money says yes, again, not very wholeheartedly. They disperse. Sara is cringing, still occupied by monotonous scrubbing, but using the interaction as a nice pass-time while the bar is empty.*
The scene above manifests a topic that has been my single most internal struggle from the second I stepped into business school 5 years ago. If you are reacting the way that I did, you can probably guess it.
Networking — in its various forms. Although one of those pictures could be used as a stock photo for a dating app.
I was hesitant to write an article about this topic because a. it has been absolutely beaten to death in all sense of the word b. writing without solutions manifests as complaining. c. There are still residual internal conflicts. However, I believe that Networking, or the concept of a Network, is integral to every single person’s career, and there aren’t enough conversations around what that means for the career advancement, women, privilege and the way it needs to be modernized.
What is networking:
There are a lot of opinions about networking.
How undergraduate business education defines networking is simply making connections with people whether brief or long-term, so that you may learn from each other or provide mutual benefits (an opportunity, a referral, a connection, advice, etc.).
Symbiosis my friends. Key takeaways:
- Keep your network “warm.” Send sporadic emails throughout the year, grab coffee, and by all means necessary — don’t let the connection die!
- A network does not have to just be people in your line of work, it can be a friendship, a mentor, a person next to you walking their dog, your oral hygienist
- Get involved to widen your network: clubs, student council, sports, fraternity-sponsored foam parties, etc.
- Most importantly — have your elevator pitch ready in case you have 30 seconds to talk about yourself in a very awkward rushed way that will land you a job
In retrospect, I do want to credit the university system. They glorify networking as one of the most important things you can take away from your college experience. And it’s true. That is how I landed my current job and how a lot of other people had stumbled upon opportunities, formed friendships, and found their passions. Most importantly, networking is also a form of art: talking to strangers, finding a common interest or topic, and executing a social interaction in a productive way. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes. It is an art that takes endless amounts of practice. I can attest that when I haven’t put myself out there in a while, the unfamiliar conversation at corporate events or happy hours feels more forced and unnatural. We can imagine that for introverts, this may be an activity that is even more difficult than for those that shine in social situations. However, we will delve into the flaws of networking further along.
The whole world has opinions about networking and there is not one correct answer to whether the concept behind a “network” is negative or positive. There are always benefits…
and costs to everything.
You can believe that networking is the key to career advancement, or you can associate networking as “dirty” and disingenuous. Either way, we must acknowledge the implications of social capital that is a consequence of networking, and that “network” means different things to different types of people. As previously stated, this especially rears itself across gender boundaries, privilege, and cycle of generations.
A Stop in Time:
When the workforce was dominated by men largely before the 1960’s, you can imagine how jobs were communicated to the public and how rudimentary the concept of talent acquisition was that existed. Disregarding how nepotism was the staple of passing on jobs/trades, there was no spike in bachelor’s degrees, nor were they required, to signal specialization. There was no ZipRecruiter or LinkedIn to send position notifications. At any point in history that was pre-internet, social capital was your lifeline to how you were recognized and connected to work. From what I envision 1900-1970’s to look like, networking usually involved other household men from poker nights, local bars, or simply the next-door neighbor. Although lack of internet and male workforce domination are uncorrelated, the two existed together at the beginning of time, and set the precedent for how the labor market intertwined with social capital and the phrase my father, like many others, enjoys repeating that “it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.” Again, the connections you had and the people you knew were everything, and John Smith, who washes the car with you every Sunday, could be your ticket to career placement and everlasting success.
As always, the topic of privilege in regards to class hierarchy or other social groups of western societies is something I like to mention, but do not feel qualified to fully educate on so I will make it brief (1).
Have you ever heard of the 30 Million Word project? It was a study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 1995 around the number of words children learn by the age of three. The conclusion? Children who grow up in poverty learn 30 million fewer words than those who grow up in the upper social class (2). Although mostly related to the achievement gap, it is a great, eye-popping statistic that sets the stage for how privilege gifts success to those already successful and makes other social and economic groups work that much harder to compensate.
I think this translates very well into the topic of social capital. Those in the upper-class score abundantly more referrals, jobs, opportunities, and experiences just because there are networks in place that benefit their socio-economic status. Consider it in terms of geography and relocation. Those from a small-town, rural area or a lower income area move to a big city. They know little to no people and have to create their support system and network from scratch. Seemingly just as talented, intelligent, and hard-working… they have to work considerably harder. Compare that to an individual who is native to an urban, wealthy, area, you can almost guarantee their parents, peers, dog-walkers, teachers, etc. have some social connection that facilitates their opportunities. Similar to the 30 million word gap, there are 30 million more people that those with privilege are connected to. So the question becomes — why should we continue to support a system that benefits people that simply know more people?
Moving on from the basic history lesson and very politically charged caricature, when I started to write this article, my first intention was to discuss how a. there were already pre-existing networks, social norms, and an umbrella advantage before 1960’s that women had to catch up to and b. pre-socialization taught CIS gender males to be better at “networking” in general. However, the more I researched it, the more I came to the conclusion that men were not better at networking, nor did they have more or less of a social connection. Overall, men and women simply network differently.
Before continuing on, please use this link to read an article by Forbes. It summarizes my observations of networking extremely well, almost to the point of taking words out of my mouth…although one could, and should, disagree with the concluding action items it gives the audience. If you do not want to read it, it is summarized below:
“Women are really good listeners, and, even at a networking event, we listen to what the other person needs so that we can help make that happen […] In an effort to personalize professional networking, women normally try to create connections or friendships. Before we think, ‘What can this person do for me?’ we ask, ‘What can I do for her in order to get what I need?”
“A man thinks, ‘Who do I know who has what I need right now?’–could be a job, investment tip or tickets to the game–and then he asks for it. Simply. […] The male brain is more compartmentalized; they get straight to the point, they know the goal. They tend to decide right away, with little to no small-talk, whether they will work with you or not.”
Unknowingly, I had witnessed this distinction during my first college internship. I was at a corporate sustainability conference, it was early in the morning. The earliest I had ever gotten up to be professionally put together at that point in time. I sat down to eat a free classic conference buffet breakfast (keyword free for College Sara). My manager came up to me right away, and said: “okay, go network.” Not only was I caught off guard, I was totally taken aback. I thought the word “networking” was supposed to be used subtly? As in that was what you were doing, but no one was supposed to directly call it that. Like how fantasy football is a fun phrase for online gambling. Or when people are on a keto, vegan, no-carb, no-fat diet…that’s called being hungry. Anyways, I was in a room full of about 50 people, all around middle-aged or older, and now I had the big label of Networking slapped on me. If he had said, “hey, let’s go chat with a few people,” or “now is a good time to introduce yourself,” that would have felt more natural to me. But now I was supposed to do this foreign, forced, very objective thing called “networking.” Also, how does one start a conversation from literally nothing? I had a bit of an internal combustion, and I am sure my first few conversations were by no means of the charming nature.
I will attribute some of that anecdote to my “greenness” of how young I was in my career, however, the directness and discomfort is what was intended to be captured. As one of the examples above, why did that word make me want to take a shower?
Self-Promotion – the Catapult:
As I was proven wrong by my previous assumption that men were “better” at networking, another thought experiment surfaced when I was talking to one of my colleagues. She said something like this: “I don’t like asking for a promotion, I would rather get tapped on the shoulder for something like that.” And at that moment, she had eloquently described my other pain point around how social capital has historically functioned around career advancement and self-promotion. Considering that self-promotion usually facilitates opportunities for career advancement, unfortunately, self-promotion is one of the most prominent double binds for women in the workplace. (Double bind: a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action) (3). In this specific case, the double bind is talking about oneself. Ex: If women speak of their accomplishments, they are viewed as “self-absorbed” “competitive” “bossy,” but if we don’t speak for ourselves, we can be looked over. In contrast, men who talk about themselves are viewed as “showcasing” or “confident,” which are much more acceptable traits. Overall, self-promotion is something that I have always struggled with, and I had always thought it was just because I am not “competitive” (4). However, no one should be punished for humility, and inconveniently, it is usually women who struggle to showcase their work. (To note: the “double bind” is not a new, profound discovery by me. It is one of the most studied gender-oriented psychological biases in the workplace.)
We can all agree that it would be a nice change of pace to move away from the gender conversation, but as a reminder, in my recent article “Posture to Change the World” I did pre-warn the audience that this specific topic was not going to fade into the night lightly and harmoniously (5). It is my principal goal that these writings do not feel as though attacking a certain gender — that is not what the point is, and there is not one specific person that my articles are directed towards. If I have only a few desired outcomes of my blog, it is that people will move forward having learned one new thing given my own experiences, and to make decisions with more empathy than they had before.
Get to the Point Already:
In conclusion, Sara was wrong. It wasn’t “networking,” however vague, that caused the gender variance, it is the combination direct-ness and self-promotion that causes a disconnect in how men vs. women advance. For something so subjective, so ingrained in the airwaves, how do we level the playing field and modernize social connections to match today’s world? Additionally bringing it back to people who are not naturally inclined to social networking, how do we make sure that regardless of ENFJ, INSF, extroversion, introversion, white, black, female, male, upper class, lower class, rich, poor, dog, cat, guinea pig, that everyone has a level playing field to opportunities? What I am asking is why leave development and talent up to chance? Why keep a model of social capital (biased social capital) and someone’s career balancing on a pendulum that favors those who are able to talk about themselves. Your future shouldn’t revolve around who your parents know, where you were born, and how outgoing, charming, or extroverted you are. We especially need to evolve in the structure, pay, and promotions internally within an organization… one that does not just rely on “who you know” or how well you can talk about your accomplishments, but the accomplishments themselves.
The Long-Term Solution:
The Yelp Review
This concept emerged when I received my 360-degree feedback from my manager during my first year-end performance review.
The review process: the company (I assume the head of talent development, CHRO, or CEO) sets a “model” for what the “ideal” leader looks like (it is actually called the Leadership Expectations). Employees are evaluated with the Leadership Expectations as a benchmark, or for those with school in mind, a rubric. Your peers/coworkers/managers “grade” you based on how your strengths and weaknesses align with the model. For example, I might receive 3 praises for “Putting People First,” and 3 improvement marks for “Bring External Benchmarks.” In the end, the feedback you receive from various stakeholders should create a holistic performance review, assuming there are re-occurring patterns/consistencies.
My manager then receives these evaluations from my respective stakeholders and we discuss how my performance aligns with the overall Leadership Expectations set by the company (6).
After I had my review, my first thought was – why don’t we make these qualitative evaluations into quantitative and post it internally? So that others can, in a snapshot, understand my performance and accomplishments. Consequently, there would be no need to self-promote if it is already out there floating around on a platform. Just like how Yelp is a consumer-sourced marketing tool for stores and restaurants, the people you work with would be your credibility. The product is your talent, the market being other members of upper management. Conceptually, this may be how it would look:
This concept would require:
- The reviews only to be sourced from a basic 360-degree type of performance evaluation directly tied to stakeholders that the individual works with (clients, co-workers, managers, etc.). Not just friends on LinkedIn. It would have to be a 360-review system because we would not want to give too much marketing power to a direct supervisor.
- The manager of the employee (or the employee) would have to be connected to the social network site and would be able to approve and verify that the people reviewing the employee are within the scope of the evaluation.
- The criterion for the ratings above is an example – would they be identical categories across the entire site? Would people make their own categories based on their specific career or company model?
- If anything at all, this model should pioneer internally as a promotional tool for objective evaluation. Let’s make performance reviews visible to other hiring managers.
- This idea is not fully formed. However, the concept is centered around having equal opportunities in the labor market based on performance, not who you know. Credible, transparent ratings.
Look familiar? It is already happening on LinkedIn:
Holes in the system? Absolutely. But again, the draft above is a conceptual design.
The Role of Managers
The role of managers is changing. It used to be the person who is the lead on a project, the ultimate decision maker, the strategy leader, and the point of contact for multiple people whether is it supervising or just reporting up. However, this is shifting. Now, more than ever, employees are hungry for development and growth, and it is becoming the only way to retain them. We want feedback, both good and bad, as constantly as we can get it. We want to be the center of attention in our own roles. The solution? Add it into Management KRA (Key Result Area) – are your employees being promoted and developed? Are you sharing talent or moving people internally for a better fit? If they aren’t ready to move up or over, are you giving your employees the tools needed to learn the trade they are in? In conclusion, we want to be tapped on the shoulder. It raises confidence and validates our work. It makes us feel good about our performance and propels us forward.
Change How We Think
Let’s just hire the most deserving and qualified people. Not your boss’s niece’s boyfriend’s uber driver.
Short-Term Solution – How to Come to Terms with “Networking”
It has taken me a very long time to come to terms with “networking,” and it is still a phrase I try to avoid. However, I found my own truth in this space that helped ease the internal dissonance, which includes a “rule” I created for myself. “Networking” for me is now synonymous with “information gathering.” For example, If I am going to spam people on LinkedIn or reach out randomly to a person I have never met — it is only to gather information (not just asking for a job or opportunity).
Why this works:
- It makes you a better “networker” when you are genuinely passionate and interested
- It doesn’t feel phony
- People love to talk about themselves
- While in school, I used to go on LinkedIn and find people in my field of study, just to hear about their roles AKA what they liked and disliked. The conversations ended up being great advice or directed me into certain career paths
- You truly, truly can learn at least one thing from everyone and anyone
- It can lead to opportunities – when passionate people talk to other passionate people, you stay at top of mind
- For those corporate social events…when there is no commonality between you, an HR specialist, and Jane, a financial trader — you can always fall back on asking people about themselves (hint – this is a great icebreaker for career fairs too).
Here, take my business card. I rank 5-stars in sending emails.
References (not extremely pretty)
- See various definitions of privilege for holistic understanding:
- Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
‘education is a right, not a privilege’mass noun ‘he has been accustomed all his life to wealth and privilege’
- White privilege (or white skin privilege) is the societal privilege that benefits people whom society identifies as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. ()
- Social privilege: The term is commonly used in the context of social inequality, particularly in regard to age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and/or social class.
- Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
- According to NPR and more recent studies – it has been combatted that the actual number is 4 million. Which is still a lot.
- Double Bind Definition
- I used to use competitive as a “weakness” in interviews
- Posture to Change the World
- I hope to soon write a more in-depth article on my first performance review