HBR: Assess the Value of Your Networks
by Athena Vongalis-Macrow
Assess the Value of Your Networks
While sifting through interviews in a Catalyst report about leadership, numerous references to networks and the importance of networking kept emerging. A key reason why women lag behind in leadership is that they are less likely to have extensive networks to support and promote them as potential leaders.
I was always a bit Groucho Marx about networking, and I agreed with him when he said that he would not join a group that would have him as a member. Marx had a point that you need to be discerning, but you also need to realize that having a network — formal or informal — is necessary for upward growth.
But should you join just any network? Through my own research and interviews, I’ve seen that networks are only as valuable as those they bring together and what happens as a result. The innate value of a network and what you get out of it can make or break your chances for development.
Before joining a network and putting in the energy to make it work, here are a few things to ask to make sure it’s right for you:
Who is in the network? Network strength can be measured by the strength of the relationships between members and what each member brings to strengthen ties. Andrew Hargadon and Robert I. Sutton (PDF) identified the qualities of those revered as good colleagues at IDEO. They came up with three components that would make members valuable to any network: They were part pack rat, part librarian, and part Good Samaritan. The pack rat brought a range of resources that could be accessed and used to create new and fresh ideas. The librarian brought information and knowledge. And the Good Samaritan had the attitude and practice of sharing. A network built on relationships between talented, knowledgeable, and supportive members is worth joining. If that relationship doesn’t exist, you may need to look elsewhere.
How well does the network connect? Increasing network strength requires both frequent and quality communication. Interactions that are consistent and demonstrate professionalism, integrity, respect, and confidence are essential to your own prospects. Quality interactions can happen anywhere, not only in the workplace. For example, one woman I interviewed described her networks like a spiderweb that drew many different people together. She described invitation-only reading groups that led to research collaborations, grant applications, and proposals for joint books. These meetings and projects could entail a senior person working with someone more junior in a mentoring capacity. Joining a network that has professional associations means that the connections can share and enhance common goals, goodwill, commitment, and interests.
Is there functional communication? We all have days of frustration and disappointment at work. Being able to express these emotions can be a healthy way of letting off steam. If your network operates under an ethos of support, it means that your frustrations and disappointments will be heard in order to resolve problems, lend support, and provide assistance to overcome your frustrations and prevent burnout. Care and concern create network value because they are resources that help build trust and support. Ask yourself, does your network offer support that enables you to overcome difficulties?
Who are you talking to? Networking with more senior representatives has its benefits. Having access to a powerful spokesperson and building your connections is one way of working toward extending your network. For example, the golden skirts is an informal network supporting women on corporate boards. Members of the golden skirts, who are also members of other networks, are able to represent and speak on behalf of their other golden skirt members among a diverse range of other business, corporate, and education networks. They are almost twice as likely to be invited to other boards! Seek ways to represent your interests to those in other networks and to those more senior.
Your time is valuable and networking can be hit and miss if you cannot assess the value of your network first. Before you start networking, find out about the network and how it can help you move toward your goals.
What else do you consider before joining a network?