As we move to increase the representation of women in senior management and on boards, deep and supportive networks are held out as being one of the keys to long term success. Networks provide ongoing mentors, sponsors and above all opportunities if we’re well positioned. But recently I was left wondering why I find it so unnatural to network like a man.
I attended a panel discussion held at work on the topic of workplace flexibility in professional services. The panel comprised female senior and managing partners in large law firms and consulting practices, and it was surprising to find that I already knew 2 of the panelists and another attendee from an external firm – because our sons have all played in the same cricket team at school. Whilst it was lovely to say hello and chat, it felt very unusual and slightly uncomfortable to see these people out of their usual context, discussing topics which we wouldn’t usually touch on. I came to the conclusion that my natural bias is to put my network into boxes – work, school, home, family, sports – because my subconscious dictates that it is inappropriate for these things to overlap in any way.
Thinking back, I recalled a school cocktail party for my eldest son’s year 1 class. My then husband, himself in professional services, embarrassed me by discussing his firm’s abilities with the host, an accomplished investment banker – a conversation that ended with exchange of contact details and a promise to follow up. But why was I embarrassed by this? Both parties were happy to chat briefly about how they might do business together – indeed the host took me aside later to mention how impressed he was with the approach – and the subsequent follow up resulted in new business being transacted. But to my subconscious, such approaches should only be made in a business context, and I was left feeling that such discussions were out of place in that social setting.
As working parents, we end up with networking opportunities that spread far and wide – workplaces, clients, suppliers, family, friends, neighbours, school/childcare, sporting teams, the list goes on…. but as women, it feels like we naturally divide these groups up into neat segments of our lives. On closer consideration, I think I’ve used this as an unconscious coping mechanism to keep my mind focused on the task at hand – when I’m on the cricket sidelines I should be watching my son and only making casual chit chat with everyone else, I would need explicit permission to discuss anything even vaguely related to work or career.
There is only one conclusion – massive opportunities exist to expand my network into more meaningful areas – as most men would do naturally. All that is required is to have the courage to strike up conversations on topics other than our kids’ teachers, the weather, our holiday plans or the latest renovation – and see what unfolds.
Starting this blog is part of my journey to invite discussion and feedback on these types of topics – so please follow my blog via this site or Twitter @eyesup2014 – and get in on the conversation!