Advancing Executive Development September 21, 2020

Journey to the Boardroom: Networking & “What goes around comes around…”

By Karen Cone Former CEO, Corporate GM, & Board Director

Strong networking channels created over time are frequently the key to career success. The more senior the position, the more likely it was landed through an introduction from that executive’s network. While I believe my achievements on the career front were due to my hard work and accomplishments, I must admit when I was promoted into a new internal or external position, it was most often initiated by someone who tossed my name into the hiring ring and opened a door.

Of course, I still had to walk through the door without stumbling—but at least I had the opportunity. On more than one occasion, the person who introduced my name (or perhaps even recommended me) was someone who I met many years before, someone whose path I crossed along my career journey when I was not formally “networking.”

Making an effort to network through participation in relevant events, becoming a member of an organization like Athena Alliance, reaching out to colleagues, or actively seeking contacts through social media are all essential in career progression and learning. Networking done through one-off meetings with excellent follow-on introductions and actions is valuable.

However, it is also essential to realize that everyone we meet, connect with socially, or with whom we work (whether as a manager, employee, or colleague) becomes a part of our network and could impact us in unexpected ways. Or perhaps, more bluntly put… beware of burning bridges.

Those of you who have read my stories before know that I like to illustrate my messages with experiences from my life. And I will do so again here…

What goes around comes around

Change is inevitable. It could be triggered by the economy, markets, technology, climate, health, organizational restructuring, or so much else. I was a manager in an organization undergoing a change that needed employees with new types of skills. Despite efforts to re-train or re-direct, some employees did not adapt to the new environment, and layoffs were required to make room for others with the needed skills or, in some cases, just to cut costs. I knew that for those being impacted, this was not “just business”—it was highly personal. As a result, I made every effort to handle the situation with respect and consideration.

The time came when I needed to make a career change. I was quietly looking for my next opportunity when the phone rang. Much to my surprise, it was one of the team members who I had laid off several years before. He was calling to let me know that he had just recommended me for a leadership role in the corporation where he was now working. 

I got that position and it was a game-changer for me. When I asked this person why he would recommend me when I was the one who laid him off. His response was that he did so because of the respect I had shown him at a time when he felt he had lost everything, including his self-respect. 

Let me share one more “beware of burning bridges” example from my career. I was in the running for a leadership role of a major new initiative being launched by a brand name corporation. The hiring team did not know me; however, they noticed in my resume that I had worked earlier in my career for the same company as one of the top consultants who was advising them on this initiative. 

This company where I had worked some time before is a very large corporation with hundreds of thousands of employees. Nonetheless, the hiring team reached out to the consultant and asked him if he knew me from this earlier life and could recommend me. Who would have guessed… this consultant did know me. I actually had worked for him. Fortunately for me, he gave me a good reference and I was offered the position. 

I reached out to my former manager to thank him for the reference. He said he was pleased to do so because when I left the company, I gave proper notice and ensured a smooth transition. It highlighted to me how our interactions leave markers and no one ever knows when they will appear again. 

Warm introductions

Networking is often the result of a series of introductions and referrals, one leading to another and eventually leading to a concrete opportunity. Being a good listener during a networking meeting and then telling your story in a relatable manner often makes it possible to ask for an appropriate and valuable introduction. And, don’t be shy to do so.

As my career has progressed, I have increasingly become the one to give introductions or referrals. I am aware that every time I do this, I put my own reputation on the line. So I often struggle with the decision. I find that the way a person behaves in the process significantly impacts whether I agree to proceed with an introduction. 

Don’t make the person who is doing you a favor do the work!

When planning to make an introduction or referral, I typically ask the person to send me some information on them that I can use in an introduction. All too often, what I get is their standard resume—which means I need to go through and figure out how to position this person and how (or if) they fit the opportunity. 

Sometimes I give a person a second chance and go back to them to get exactly what is needed. However, since the person did not make an effort, I may well decide to change my mind and not risk my reputation on them. So what do I expect from the person asking for an introduction?

  • Evidence that the person has taken the time to research the individual and/or company to which I have offered an introduction, e.g., check out the company Website and the individual’s LinkedIn;
  • A few sentences about their qualifications or experience that is tailored to the potential opportunity, which I can include in my introduction;
  • A bio that highlights relevant experience and skills;
  • Or a resume that brings the relevant experience and skills to the top vs. in places that are difficult to find and don’t stand out, since most people will only quickly skim resumes.

Do follow up after an introduction is made. 

This is good courtesy. Also, what if the individual/firm to which I introduced you comes back to me with questions? What if you would like me to provide you another introduction? It certainly makes a difference, if you have:

  • Said thank you;
  • Let your introducer know whether you actually were able to connect;
  • Provide a sound bite or brief feedback on how it went;
  • Followed up on any commitments made to the individual to whom you were introduced.

Give back!

When I meet someone, my first thought is how can I help this person. Whenever we help each other reach a goal, share useful advice, or help overcome an obstacle or make a connection, this builds a relationship. Sometimes we benefit directly from this relationship, or other times it is about paying forward. Networking can be both a short-term happening and also part of a longer-term journey in our careers and our lives. Our interactions weave a web of connections that we can climb or break. 

In my story on Sponsorship, I share how providing value cultivates sponsors, especially if one is not born into an entitled network. Women and minorities need to be proactive in building networks and supporting each other. 

Many talented, highly capable people, don’t have the connections needed to get that first introduction. As we grow and develop, we also need to help fill that gap and weave the networking web for someone who just needs a door opened that could lead to a breakthrough opportunity. After all, we greatly benefit from the variety of different perspectives, experience, innovation, and understanding resulting from a diverse workforce.