The topic of networking is one of my favorites for women in business. It’s here that we can turn good intentions into wastes of time, and worse. The purpose of this post is less to open a window to my soul and expose my naivety, and more to provide insight for you. I hope you’ll benefit from this, share it with the women in your network, and impart the lessons on to your daughters, sisters and friends. If only I had been so fortunate.
Following an internship at a polling firm in DC, I started my career on Capitol Hill. I worked in a nonpartisan capacity, which gave me the opportunity to interact with a broad swath of DC power brokers. Our board consisted of heavy hitters in politics, advertising, lobbying, and more, including future Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. I talked frequently with Gen. Colin Powell’s office as we bestowed an award upon him. I worked with and wrote speeches for House and Senate leadership. These were the celebrities and rock stars of my young world.
Ambition in a vacuum
Do you know what I made of those relationships with powerful people and their influential staffs? Of those opportunities to jettison my ravenously ambitious young career?
Very, very little.
I distinctly remember a lovely email I received from a press secretary for a member of congress telling me how impressed she was with me, hoped the organization was taking very good care of me, and asked me to stay in touch. I kept that email because I cherished it. But I did none of what she asked.
If I had it to do over again. . .
I can’t go back to that time and that place and re-create those opportunities. They are lost. But in the years following in studying women’s business challenges, and practicing Sun Tzu’s strategy for business, I’ve committed to, as the sage put it, “take advantage of every opportunity.”
But what happened then? Why did I take such little advantage of so many opportunities? Why was I unable to utilize the tremendous leverage of the many power brokers whose paths I crossed? I believe I can narrow it down to four reasons:
1. Confidence—I was intimidated by these people. Rather than making time with them when they were in the office or in meetings, I scurried away. I felt as if I let them see my work, they’d realize that I wasn’t doing as well as I could or should. They’d find my mistakes, my shortcomings, my weaknesses and I’d be exposed.
There is good reason for this. My first “big girl” jobs were a bit over my head. I had to figure out how to meet the requirements. There tended to be little management of my work and little oversight. Despite this, I always performed very well and held myself to high standards. This lack of confidence may have been a result of the “stretching” that I had to do, or it may have emerged from deep within. Either way, the results were the same.
2. Savvy—I simply didn’t have the organizational discernment to understand the implications of interacting more intentionally with these people. The real secret sauce of a powerful network is NOT who you know. That’s hogwash. I knew Chao, Gen. Powell’s communications staffers, staffers for House and Senate leadership, big-shot lobbyists, and many other influencers. But I never allowed any of them to really get to know me. I didn’t create advocates. I kept my head down and plugged away at the job.
3. Fervent independence—I’m a cowgirl. Just give me some space and some time and I’ll do it. That works well in many areas of my life and has been a major success factor in co-founding an ad agency, co-creating Sun Tzu Strategies, running a jujitsu dojo, writing Sun Tzu for Women and setting in motion efforts to write others, working as a marketing consultant . . . you get the idea. I embrace my desire to march to the beat of my own harpist.
4. Focusing on hard work alone—But sometimes this independence can be a detriment. If I’m not careful, it can keep me from reaching out to people who can help me and asking for what I want. This fallacy is that of the Hard-Work-Aloner, of which I’ve written and spoken. This is the mistake that if we just work harder, “they” – our superiors, business partners, clients and other influencers – will see what we deserve and give it to us.
But that’s not how it works at all. While these Hard-Work-Aloners are struggling up the rungs, those (mostly men) who get how the game is played are building relationships with senior people, and networking within and outside of their organizations. It’s not just about the caliber of your work.
I wish I realized all of this 15 years ago. Lamentations aside, everything has worked out well and I’m pleased with where I am in my career. But from time to time I remind myself of these missed opportunities. I don’t do it to punish myself, but to commit to taking advantage of future opportunities. And I’m thankful I wised up before another 15 years passed.
I hope you gain some insight from my misses – and create real opportunities from the vapors of my missteps. These examples fall under the broad banner of networking. I’ll soon blog about my top tips specifically for women to make the most out of networking. Be ready for a new view of networking, not the same-old, same-old that leaves us in neutral.