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Work and Organizations

Building effective networks: nurturing strategic relationships, especially for women

Think about the people you turn to for work-related advice and support. How many of these people are outside your organization? Outside your area of expertise? At a different level of seniority? Of a different race or gender?

A quick scan of your key relationships, or networks, may indeed reveal that they have not kept pace with your career advancement goals. The reason? Your job is so demanding that it pushes opportunities to network to the bottom of your to-do list. Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior, aims to upend this logic. Her research on leadership reveals that professional networks are not a sidebar, but instead are key to career advancement.

While many people know that networks are essential to leadership, their networks are often less developed than they would like. Left to chance, our networks are likely to be inefficient; research documents a tendency for people to forge connections with others who are similar, which limits the new information and opportunities that circulate among a group. To be effective, networks must be strategically built to include broad and diverse connections that evolve over the course of a career. In workplaces where men dominate high-level positions, this goal can be even more difficult for women to attain.

Network diagnostics

Ibarra outlines three types of networks integral to leading effectively in the workplace: operational, personal and strategic. The first includes the contacts you depend on everyday to accomplish work tasks: team members, supervisors, suppliers and customers. These ties are necessary for achieving short-term goals, but are unlikely to lead to new insights or opportunities. Personal networks primarily include relationships outside the workplace, such as friends and family. These relationships encourage personal and professional growth and development, but are time intensive and are often disconnected from day-to-day work. Lastly, strategic networks are comprised of relationships that provide new information, resources and opportunities for advancement. Strategic networks are of the utmost importance, yet are also the hardest type of network to cultivate.

Ibarra distills effective strategic networks to three key attributes: they are broad, connective and dynamic. Strategic networks should include ties across divisions, organizations and levels of seniority; they should leverage existing relationships to connect with people you would not otherwise meet; and they should constantly grow as your career evolves. Attaining what Ibarra calls “the BCDs” is a challenge for all professionals. Cultivating strategic relationships is time consuming, and many professionals feel that it is inauthentic to initiate relationships for the purpose of advancing professional goals. While all professionals must move beyond these challenges to maximize their network’s effectiveness, women face structural barriers to doing so.

Breaking into the power elite

Men still dominate high-level leadership positions in most U.S. workplaces. When women seek to build relationships with senior executives, most of the time they will need to connect with men. According to a study by and McKinsey & Company, men have predominantly male networks while women have predominantly female or mixed networks. This pattern means that men are more likely to have the ear of senior executives in their organizations, and that women will need to infiltrate a male-dominated network to have their voices heard.

Gaining membership in the power elite or inner circle of your organization can be no easy task. For one thing, women must counteract the tendency for people to band with others who are like themselves. Ibarra says, “Left to our own devices…we produce networks that are ‘just like me,’ convenience networks.” In male-dominated workplaces, women must cross an additional dimension of difference to build strategic relationships.

Women’s networking is further hampered by the additional responsibility they typically bear for housework and childcare. Home responsibilities limit women’s opportunities to attend evening and off-site networking events and lead women to invest in personal networks centered on familial, rather than professional, needs.

Last, when women do manage to gain an audience with senior male executives, their ability to form meaningful relationships may be hindered by gender biases. Business strategists recommend going into networking meetings with an “ask.” However, women can be penalized in the workplace when they violate gender stereotypes, such as the expectation to be supportive and not demanding. If approaching relationships transactionally (with an “ask”) deviates from expectations about how women ought to behave, attempts to network strategically could produce backlash. Instead of building a deeper personal connection, stereotypes may create a barrier.

Troubleshooting connectivity problems

Though women face an uphill battle when it comes to networking, there are strategies that they can use to build strategic networks that will advance their career goals and aid in leadership transitions. Ibarra recommends starting by changing one’s orientation to networking. “It’s not just about what your network can do for you, but what you can do for the people that you’re connected to.” Recognizing and seeking to enhance one’s own value can make networking feel more organic and authentic.  

Enter new relationships with curiosity. What might be fun to know about the other people? What would be fun for them to know about you? If you enter with curiosity, you may find more success in ways that are less transactional and more meaningful.

On a practical level, to balance the demands of work and family, Ibarra suggests investing in a few activities that will connect you to people inside and outside your organization, and leveraging existing relationships to meet new people. Instead of attending many networking events but leaving before you have a chance to make a meaningful connection, invest in a few and make the most of the opportunity. Offer to organize a panel or interview a speaker so you become known as a valuable member of the group, in addition to making deeper connections.

Above all, Ibarra says to stop hesitating and start acting. “Do it now, get started, and you’ll see where it takes you.”

For more information, please view Herminia Ibarra’s film on networking, part of the film series for the Voice and Influence Program at the Clayman Institute's Center for Women's Leadership.