Women build relationships naturally by getting to know people, offering to help, listening to problems and giving advice, but do we optimize these relationships? When it comes to advancing our careers, we have to consider who can help us the most in achieving our personal vision. And we have to get strategic about who and how we ask for that help. It’s necessary to get really good at what we do, but careers are not built on talent, expertise or even hard work alone, they are the result of a mutual exchange of benefits and we must learn the art of leverage to get ahead.
First, connect back to your personal vision and ask yourself what specifically you need to bring that vision to life? Typically this will involve developing a certain degree of expertise at something or having access to people, resources or experiences as a way of furthering your career. What exactly do you need and from whom? This is a mindset that you need to develop early and tend to often. As you advance in your career, what and who you need to be successful will naturally evolve. You have to stay on top of that and not fall into the ‘inevitability of success’ that I explore with so many of the women I coach. Women who are ambitious put their heads down and do the hard work to get ahead. And that will get you so far, but to really rise in an organization, you have to do more.
Once you can clearly articulate what it is you are asking for and you know why it matters to you (and don’t underestimate the difficulty of this first step!) you can then start to map out who can help. There has to be a reason, however, for someone to help you and you will need to get very good at articulating what is in it for them as well.
Inside of the company where you work, this should be pretty easy. Because your success is the company’s success. Still, when you ask for a new opportunity at work, a resource, a promotion or additional budget, you must be clear on how what you are asking for will impact the business. If you can’t clearly explain that, figure it out first. Find people on the inside who will want to support you because it will reflect well on them.
Next, you need to begin to look outside of the organization and at your network generally. If you develop a particular set of skills that are marketable, useful, and help build businesses, who else might find your development of that skill set useful? You will be successful in enlisting allies, supporters and promoters when they understand how your success connects to their bigger picture.
When I coach people, I ask them to start by mapping their existing network of allies. By allies, I mean those who enable you to achieve your personal vision. I suggest categorizing them into two types: direct allies and indirect allies.
Direct allies are those who actively promote you and make your work visible. Inside of your organization, they use and rely on your skills, they already give you more work, and they are clear promoters of what you do well. Map out who your direct allies are and then ask yourself, how do you strengthen your relationship with those allies? Thank them for their support, and continue to ensure that they are also receiving some benefit from your successful performance. Tending to existing relationships is critical!
Indirect allies also play an important role in bringing your vision to life. They are connectors who know you and know about your work. They have access to additional opportunities that help you grow and develop. And often, without even being asked, they promote you. Once again, do not underestimate why they do this. Maybe they are just being kind; but it is likely that there are other reasons.
People connect people because they are generous (for which they should be thanked), because they see you as someone who has real talent and can make a contribution (for which they will want to be appreciated), because they really believe in your mission or who you are (for which they will expect you to have an impact and you should let them know when you do) or because you have something they need now or may need in the future (for which you should be willing to trade).
In order to find out what your indirect allies care about, ask. Learn about them first so that you can begin to explore possibilities for reciprocity. What is it that you know that could help them? Who is in your network that could possibly benefit them?
Never underestimate your connections, or the connections of your connections. When I was coaching MBA students at the University of Oxford, I would ask them what they were working on and who they were inspired by? In one case, I had a student who told me about someone who inspired him. I had never met that person, but he was a thought leader and the student had read one of his books. I reached out to one of my contacts who knew him and I made an introduction. This person became a mentor to the student I was coaching.
In leveraged relationships, keep focused on the purpose of the network: the opportunity to enhance your reputation, visibility or learn a new skill. In establishing leverage, your purpose is front and center and clearly stated. Don’t waste your time or the valuable time of others unless you know explicitly what it is you want from the connection. Keep focused on what you need to promote yourself and what you can offer in return. Be clear about why it is in their interest to build a relationship with you and what might that offer them going forward.
Leveraging relationships takes courage. But if we ground our requests in a larger purpose, and connect it to our values, then we’re asking not just for our benefit but for the benefit of all.