It’s challenging to advance in today’s economy. Networking is a key tool that can keep your career on the upward track, both inside and outside of your company.

The problem is that many people, especially women, don’t get the most out of networking as they should. I’m going to share a strategy that will accelerate not only your networking, but a lot of other aspects of your career.

Traditionally, networking meant joining industry groups, working hard, and eventually getting introductions to key people. These days, it is more self-directed but less personal, using online sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. With either of these approaches, the ball is in your lap, to move your agenda.

Research shows that women place greater value on building relationships with people with whom they feel comfortable and are mutually supportive over those who will promote their careers. The result is that women tend to have smaller but deeper networks versus men who have wider and more strategic networks.   Women still believe that working hard and doing a good job will be enough to succeed. Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization conducting research on women in business, has proven that having mentors is absolutely crucial to career success. But for women, who are too-often left out of the key networks, building the right network and finding the mentors can be frustrating-especially when men dominate the leadership. The vast majority of women in a study by Catalyst, on the importance of the unwritten rules, acknowledged that they wished they had known about the importance of informal networking earlier in their careers. Therein lies the irony, access to the right informal networks is critical to success and yet there are no written guidelines or rules on how to join these groups.

A common example is how women are often omitted from male dominated relationship-forming activities such as golf outings. A current client of mine I will call Susan, one of a few women SVPs in a fortune 1000 company, was frustrated after she got promoted, finding it challenging to build a rapport with her boss and key male colleagues. Because she was telecommunicating and only worked at the headquarters one or two weeks a month, it was tough for her to participate in the informal outings. What Susan learned to do was to assume innocent intent and become more systematic and consistent in visiting her boss and co-workers on an informal basis, asking for feedback, and to be included in golf outings. These are small steps for how women can become part of the “boy’s network.” To continue to grow inside and outside the company, women need to develop more strategic relationships that offer constructive feedback, support, and a push.

So let’s leverage women’s strengths as relationship builders and take a page from the world of professional sports, by bringing in a “pacing partner.”

A pacing partner is someone who is both your collaborator and competitor: someone who is going to challenge you to bring forth your best effort, but supportive enough to help you over the rough spots.

In women’s tennis, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were able to forge and maintain a friendship during 16 years of fierce competition as archrivals. They still have the longest rivalry of anyone male or female in the sporting world. Chris and Martina give each other credit for motivating each other to keep improving. These kinds of relationships don’t only exist at the very top tier. I was a competitive tennis player for many years, and I frequently played against a friend named Carla. At first, I would always beat her. But my game pushed Carla to improve, and she started closing the gap, and eventually beating me. This forced me to get better again; I even brought in a new coach, and Carla and I became evenly matched. And if one of us was having an off day, the other would be disappointed and coach the other to play better.

Women often have a hard time in competitive relationships; we seek intimacy and want to be liked. According to research by Deborah Tannen, a Ph.D. Linguist and author of numerous books including, “You Just Don’t Understand,” forming collaborative relationships where each person pushes the other to surpass her level of performance is very challenging for women. Subtle shifts in alliances and displaying superiority will not get women what they want – which is affiliation with their peers; for that they need to appear the same as, not better than their peers. Pacing partners create a way for women to build energizing relationships and find a mentor—while mentoring back and building the intimacy they require! We can leverage our natural collaborative instincts and have other “players” on our side. Stress can come down while achievements go up.

In my book, Collaborative Competition, I’ve identified four different types of pacing partners: role model, mentor, friendly competitor, and challenger. Friendly competitor relationships are the least threatening, and I’d recommend you start there—by selecting someone who’s already a good friend or someone with whom you trust to explore how you can assist each other through career challenges.

It is important that you choose someone who has skills or talents that could broaden or inspire you to improve. You can build this relationship through two strategies: offering emotional support and sharing common interests, goals, and ideas.   What is critical for women is to set up clear expectations of the friendship as I have found that is why many female mentor-like relationships fail because of unclear guidelines. The goal of a friendly competitor relationship is to provide a safe way to take risks and obtain honest feedback without fear of negative consequences. I encourage women to seek out other women because it is so uncommon, but you can also chose men. This relationship will help provide you with support and challenge that will keep you going and performing at a high level as Chris and Martina did for 16 years despite cutthroat competition.

Jennifer, a former coaching client, is an example as of how these friendly competitor and challenger relationships helped save a job and catapult a career. I was asked to help “save” Jennifer as she had been a star financial analyst at a major investment bank for the first five years of her career and then was in danger of getting fired because she was unable to move from being an excellent analyst to a skilled salesperson. We focused on increasing her presentation skills. I asked Jennifer to identify three colleagues that were skilled presenters. There were two men whom she viewed as more confident and poised in delivering presentations.   One was Tom, with whom she was friends and taught the financial-modeling classes to the new hires with. She barely knew the other man, Matt, but she did know that he was viewed as a real schmoozer. Clients loved him, and he always seemed to play a role in presentations with the managing directors, not very common for someone at the senior associate level. Tom appeared to be a potential friendly competitor, and Matt, a challenger.

The first step was for Jennifer to observe these guys to see what they did that made them successful. She began with Tom since they shared the highest degree of trust and comfort. After one of the technical training programs they ran together, she told him she wanted to get better at presenting and asked for his help. He agreed to give her feedback.

Tom told Jennifer that she was knowledgeable, patient, and good at explaining complex concepts. His feedback was that she needed to improve in two areas; make the training more conversational instead of reading from the manual and avoid spending too much time on inessential details. In response to Tom’s feedback, I worked with Jennifer to expand her presentation style.

As Jennifer improved, she gathered her confidence to ask Matt to have lunch. Because she viewed him as a Challenger, she didn’t directly divulge that she wanted to improve presentation skills. Instead, she told him how impressed she was with his presentation in a meeting and said she wanted tips concerning how he became an accomplished presenter. She kept the conversation about him. As they talked, Matt shared advice: he called people in advance of a meeting and made small talk as they gathered for the meeting. He shared his formula for building rapport. The process was not something Jennifer had ever used before. She began to use it and improved her performance and confidence. Instead of getting laid off, she received a higher performance rating and began getting assignments in which she was asked to present ideas to clients.

As you can see, a pacing partner can be your accountability buddy especially as it relates to building that informal network. In short, the pacer relationship stretches and supports you, extends your network of relationships, and builds key skills that will help you continue to advance inside and outside of your company.

 

KATHRYN MAYER is President & Founder of KC Mayer Consulting, Inc., a strategic leadership coaching firm. Ms. Mayer has been a leadership professional for twenty years and she currently leads workshops and does executive coaching work with a special focus on women in competitive businesses. Her perspective on leadership is shaped by her experience as a woman in competitive sports and in competitive corporate environments where she has worked for over fifteen years including ten years in investment banking. She is the author of Collaborative Competition™: A Woman’s Guide to Succeeding by Competing, which can be ordered on Amazon.com. Kathryn Mayer can be reached at mayer@kcmayer.com or 917-846-6694.

 

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