How the Nature of your Network Can Affect your Career Path

by: Sharon Belden Castonguay, EdD
Director, Graduate Career Management Center
Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business
New York, NY

Recently I was asked to be the keynote speaker for an event hosted by my campus’s women in business organization. Since the research I undertook has informed how I work with students on the topic of networking I wanted to share here what I learned.

Most of us think of networking as something that is part of a job search. I would like to speak today about three different types of networking, and how each is necessary for effective career management. I am drawing from the research of Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter, professors at INSEAD in France, who look at how effective leaders build and use their networks. They describe this process as “simultaneously one of most self-evident and one of the most dreaded developmental challenges that aspiring leaders must address.”

At the heart of their work is the idea that different types of networking lead to different career results, and that understanding the differences and cultivating the right networks at the right times are important to reach specific career goals. Operational networking refers to building relationships with the people with whom you work on a day-to-day basis, those you count on to get your job done. Your boss, your peers, and close outsiders like clients would all fall under operational networking. These types of people are easy to access and most people are able to build these relationships holistically without much thought; not because it’s always easy, necessarily, but because it’s clear why it’s important and the target individuals clear: who is part of your routine? The pitfalls of not doing this well are also readily apparent: your performance suffers if you don’t have the rapport and trust of your proximal network on the job.

Building these relationships is important for anyone, and can help make you an effective manager. But to move into a leadership role—or to leave your firm entirely—different forms of networking must come into play. In order to prepare for the almost inevitable shift to a new employer, or even more dramatic move into a new career, you must engage in personal networking. These relationships are those you develop via trade associations, your alma mater, volunteer work, or other outside interests. Some of these, like professional organization contacts, may be part of your larger work world, while others—say, fellow parents at your child’s school—may seem to have no immediate tie or relevance to your career. The power of these ties lies in their potential to connect you with a wider circle outside your usual sphere and refer you to people who may be useful when you’re trying to make a transition.

According to a research study of top equity analysts undertaken by Harvard Business School professors Boris Groysberg, Ashish Nanda and Nitin Nohria, women tend to be very good at this type of networking. In their study they found that when top performing men moved to new companies their performance tended to suffer, often dramatically, while women continued to do well. The authors attribute this difference in part to the fact that men tended to focus on building their internal networks—something that was perhaps easier for them to do in a male-dominated profession—while women felt compelled to build outside alliances resulting in “portable, external relationships with the companies they covered.” Men were more reliant on their institution and how they navigated a specific company culture for their success, but also rarely recognized this interaction until it was too late. They were also more likely to jump ship for more money. Women, likely more concerned about finding a culture that was going to be a good fit for them personally, took more care with their decision to make a move.

This all sounds great on the surface, but it raises some real issues for women who want to develop within one firm. To do this businesspeople must rely on what Ibarra and Hunter term strategic networking. Leaders within a firm must not only understand how all the pieces of their organizational puzzle fit together, but also plan for the need to know people in many different disparate parts of the company. While more difficult to cultivate it is this distal network that make successful upward movement within an organization possible, both by allowing you to understand the work of others and how it fits into the big picture and expanding your sphere of influence internally. While many dismiss this type of networking as unsavory, as “political” rather than naturally occurring based on day-to-day interaction, the authors argue that it is better seen as a necessary skill for success. They suggest that finding a good role model who personifies the positive aspects of this behavior and undertakes strategic networking in an ethical way can help you see the benefits and give you a road map for getting started.

I hope that you find the differentiation of these three types of networking helpful in terms of how you think about your network’s effect on your career path. All of you are here today as part of another important aspect of networking—give and take. Students, I hope that you remember that giving time and advice to others is as part of this process as reaching out to professionals in your areas of interest. For the industry professionals that are will us today, I thank you for your time and service, and but also like to think that you realize that every student in this room is a future contact for you, and a potentially valuable one. I hope that this morning proves fruitful for all of you here today.

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