In 2017, I read an editorial in The New York Times with one eye on the paper and the other one rolling in the back of my head. (Metaphorically, that is. Do not try this at home!)
The piece, written by Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School, is called “Networking Is Overrated.”
The essence of Grant’s opinion piece is it’s not who you know, it’s what you do. In other words, accomplishments are more effective calling cards to success than a business network.
He notes the grassroots success stories of Justin Bieber and Adele, whose talents shone through on social media and caught the attention of music executives, and SPANX founder Sara Blakely, whose product rose above all the rest when Oprah Winfrey chose it as one of her favorite things of the year. Grant’s thesis is that great ideas and great work find attention. To quote one of my son’s favorite movies, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”
I would love to live in that world, where talent, ingenuity and skill guarantee success.
But I don’t. And neither do you.
According to a 2021 study by Women in the Workplace, about 86 women to every 100 men are promoted to the managerial level, and as such, fewer women are able to make it onto the leadership track. As the 2016 version of the study stated, “Women also get less access to the people, input, and opportunities that accelerate careers.” Women are either not networking or are networking ineffectively.
Women and men both view support from senior leaders as essential for success. Yet women report fewer interactions with those senior leaders than men do. They are also less likely to say that a senior leader has helped them get a promotion.
This disparity may be caused by differences in women’s and men’s professional networks. Because men typically hold more senior-level positions, this means women are less likely to get access to people with the clout to open doors for them.
Carol Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo, says the issue is that “women spend more time doing and less time networking.”
Alison Mass, of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., has said that it’s critical to take 10-20% of your time at work to network. My personal philosophy is that there is no one-size-fits-all school of networking. Create rules for yourself that you’re comfortable with. Call somebody rather than email. Comment on somebody’s LinkedIn essay. Go to the office mixer, even if just for 30 minutes.
I far prefer to have three real conversations than to meet and exchange cards with 30 people. How do I define real? It usually means I have found at least one way I can meaningfully benefit this person. The rest can build from there.
The benefits of networking are irrefutable. Employers fill most job openings through the “hidden job market”—internal candidates, referrals from colleagues, friends and employees. You need to be part of the equation, and you’ll only do that by networking yourself in.
In all fairness, Grant does acknowledge the benefits of networking, so I’d like to think the best philosophy is somewhere in the middle. Success is neither a question of what you know or who you know. It’s all about who knows what you know. Those who can share their accomplishments are the ones who will thrive in this economy.
This article was published in December 2017 and has been updated. Photo by View Apart/Shutterstock
Bea Wray is the chair of the entrepreneurship practice at Advantage Media Group | ForbesBooks in Charleston, S.C. In this role, she helps high-growth entrepreneurs tell their stories to build their authority and brand and grow their business. Bea holds an MBA with Distinction from Harvard Business School, is a summa cum laude graduate of Emory University, and is one of South Carolina’s prestigious Liberty Fellows of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. She is a frequent keynote speaker on entrepreneurship and business growth, and contributor to various publications, including Entrepreneur.com, the Women Presidents’ Organization and the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Her book, What Harvard Taught Me, But My Kids Made Me Learn, is expected to arrive in early 2018.