By Natalie Abou-Alwan

“How on earth did X get the job?” – I wonder how many times you have heard this or thought this yourself about a colleague? Was it through sheer hard graft or was it down to something else? If it was something else, what is that something else?

In my experience, there are three types of worker looking to achieve professional success:

  1. those who believe that just by getting your head down and working hard, your efforts will be rewarded on merit;
  2. others, who believe that by putting less focus on work and more focus on networking, success will be inevitable; and
  3. a third category who believe something in the middle: hard work is needed but this needs to be balanced with significant time dedicated to networking.

Which one are you?

Natalie Abou-Alwan

I hate to say it, but I spent most of my career believing in the principal of worker number one above. Surely if I just worked hard, gained experience, received strong feedback from my peers and clients, then success would come calling. Right? I think we all know the answer. What a fool I was!

Don’t get me wrong, hard work is important, especially in the early part of your career as you absorb information, learn the nuts and bolts of your particular industry, make mistakes and learn from them. Hard work should continue too as you grow and take on more responsibilities, perhaps start managing a team and gain wider accountabilities. But around this juncture something changes, the lanes seem to split into two (I know I am simplifying here, but no doubt you get the point): one lane for the meteoric risers and the other for the rest.

Why does this happen and who picks the meteors? I have witnessed time and again a certain “type” who hit the fast lane. So, what are they doing that the rest are not? The answer usually rests on one activity: networking.

Like many of you, I have mentored men and women both within my own workplace and outside of it. I recently co-chaired an ethnic minorities network made up of approximately 1,000 employees in one of these workplaces and did quite a bit of work across minority groups. Something that really stood out to me was the gulf that seems to exist between the majority group and the minorities, particularly in this area of networking.

Speaking to many employees, I realised that most of those in the minority categories and more often than not, ethnic minorities (both male and female) were simply not brought up to network and were not taught the seeming importance of this in the workplace. Their parents would instil in them at a young age: “Keep your head down at work, don’t stand out, work hard and be grateful for the job you have.” In fact, in some cultures, being deferential to one’s boss and peers, even when you disagree with them on an issue, is the only way to behave. Anything else would cause you to raise your head above the parapet and make waves where you shouldn’t and bottom line, would be considered downright offensive.

Similarly, I often hear others, usually women, saying: “I just feel awkward putting time in someone’s diary to talk about myself, especially when they are very senior and busy.” Whilst at the same time, the men I mentor have already chatted to Mr or Ms Important at the coffee machine, discussed the football results or their families and agreed to join their group for a quick drink after work that evening.

This chasm of behaviour therefore puts minority groups at another disadvantage in the workplace. So, how can we change this? I think the first step is awareness of the issue and from that, should come a commitment to adjust environments and measurements for success to be truly inclusive. I am sure we have all read the various industry and academic reports that resoundingly highlight the importance of diversity to a corporation’s profitability, but it is the concept of inclusivity that is more fundamental and therefore, much harder to tackle successfully. Alongside this, more effort is needed from the individual employee to build their confidence and ease in “socialising” more within the workplace. I don’t believe you can have one without the other, so it really is a pincer movement, a ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom- up’ approach.

Here are just a few suggestions around how you might start to re-think your concerns about networking:

  • Don’t think of it as networking! – the word “networking” itself can send shivers down some people’s spines. Rather than perceive it as false and “time-wasting”, perhaps try to think of it from the opposite perspective. You are not getting to know somebody, instead, they are getting to know you. Psychologically, this can take the emphasis off you actively “time-wasting” and feeling awkward about doing it and instead, shifts it to a more positive one, allowing the other person to start to better understand you. As we all know, we usually have more in common with others than we think, but we only learn this when we start to communicate;
  • Mitigate the risk of being left behind – we all have different drivers and motivations in the workplace and that is a good thing. However, if what you want is concrete progression in your career, you will need to pull out of the same lane and move across to the next one. This requires getting your name out there and one of the ways to achieve this is by speaking to a wider net of people. When I started to do this, I noticed that more opportunities came my way just through a short conversation with someone in a different area/location/discipline, perhaps use a recent piece of work as your ice-breaker which can also showcase your achievements;
  • Seek out a mentor you trust – do not be afraid to make direct contact with someone who inspires you and from whom you feel you can learn. Ask them if they would be interested in mentoring you. From a human perspective, not only is this extremely flattering for them, but it should also help you work through any particular concerns you are facing at the time. Strong mentorship usually leads to strong sponsorship (from a person in power who will advocate for you) and this is key to your progression.

As mentioned, it is not just down to the individual who is already reluctant to “put themselves out there”. Corporations too have a part to play in this and below are just a couple of examples that I have seen work successfully:

  • Recognise networking as a career accelerator – organisations need to openly acknowledge this and therefore recognise that minority groups need more encouragement and support in building their networks;
  • Focus on Inclusivity – this really is the hardest part, but it is vital. If your organisation does not foster an authentic environment, where each employee feels welcomed and most importantly, equal, then how are they going to feel part of the larger picture and comfortable enough to speak out? Ignoring this means ignoring your best asset: your talent and ultimately, your potential future as a profitable and successful company;
  • Create a level playing field – this can be done from the initial job specification stage, straight through to how success is measured both in performance reviews and promotions;
  • Seek out the quietest voice – and listen to it! Each employee has something of value to offer, so make sure you create the space to harness this, rather than lose it in the wider noise.

I appreciate that this is a huge topic to cover in a short article and we will all have so much more to add here, but if I can leave you with one thought on this, it would be: We all have a place in this world, so do not be afraid to spread your net wide!