During this past summer, the CANA Foundation, the “give back” arm of CANA Advisors, helped support a live, interactive panel at the 89th Virtual Military Operational Research Society (MORS) Conference. The event, a Women in MORS Special Session on Effective Networking Strategies, was an informative and entertaining success with almost 50 attendees, bringing together a diverse group of women and men leaders and thinkers to share their successes, and even sometimes, failures.
The highlights are worth revisiting as we approach the 22nd of September, American Business Women’s Day; a National Day of Recognition that likely falls below the radar on a far too frequent basis. This year, we share the insights and tools used by professionals to interact in meaningful and productive ways in their respective fields. Due to the non-attributional nature of the panel, specific names and positions cannot be provided, but the group was wide-ranging and accomplished, from senior military members and government policy leaders to top technical experts. Their comments have been condensed and organized for clarity.
The panel was first asked to detail an interesting or influential professional experience or notable observation. Three maxims were particularly resonant and widely applicable.
It’s not who you know, but who knows you. You have to create true, foundational relationships in order for your networks to work.
You need a wingman that you can reach out for support.
Be conscious of who you network with – think about looking up and out. You will have to network with those outside of your comfort zone.
Second, the question was raised: What is the most valuable piece of professional advice you received and who gave it to you? Action, accountability, and balance were common threads woven through the panel’s answers, but each panelist shared a slightly different take.
“You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time,” as credited to a well-known female government policy advisor.
Work hard and own it!
You can do and be anything; don’t let anyone else define who you are.
Attitude can be contagious. Keep a positive, optimistic outlook. This will help you and your team accomplish goals.
You rarely accomplish anything when you’re trying to accomplish everything. It is important to maintain balance: put things in priority and drop those of low priority.
Do what you say: actions follow words.
It’s okay to fail. Learn from it and grow.
The panel’s spontaneous and personal answers are supported by recent research. An exceptionally long and detailed study of networking among men and women was cited by the Harvard Business Review in 2019 with similar findings. The study - over 15,000 participants over 15 years - also found that successful women prioritize their efforts; they maneuver adeptly in and out of networks; they create balance, and they create a wide-spanning network(2).
While all of this is illuminating, there remains the practical question of how do we do these things? Building, maintaining, and using networks is not easy, nor are there obvious instructions. Answering this question in the context of women in business adds another layer of complexity. Fortunately, the panel had answers.
Look for people that are sincere and open-minded. Career paths may separate, but those types of people will give you their time and honest feedback.
You have to involve yourself in activities and opportunities to build your network – through your organization, and through professional societies.
A lot of people network when they need something, but it’s a continual process – you need to build your network so that it exists when you need it, and it has to be genuine.
You need to find what is comfortable for your personality. Be okay with who you are.
If you excel in a tough job, you’ll build your network based on how you interacted with people.
Again, study results bore this out. Successful networkers were found to have confidently looked outside their familiar zones to seek new connections. There is no expectation that it is comfortable, per se, but reaching out is, “...critical to accessing new information, leading innovation, and pursuing advancement, for both women and men.”(2) Building connections requires work, as one panelist noted, ‘there’s no such thing as luck – do what you can to be there in the room. Be prepared, be present.’
A large component of the panel was a discussion of the differences, if they exist, between male and female networks, and the intersections thereof. Given the panel’s traditionally male-centric and/or male-dominated career representation - military, technology, IT, and government - it was little surprise most participants recognized a male/female distinction.
But is there a line in the sand, or have the two sides become mixed? The answer is a little of both. The general consensus was that separate male and female networks do exist, but the smart professional tries to adeptly navigate and build connections in both. Ideally, these networks will eventually share members and benefits. There was a recognition among the panel that while things are changing, and ‘it is better than it was,’ women still have ‘…to be well prepared and hold their own.’ One panelist observed a female-centric network can be a powerful tool, referencing another study that validated this conclusion. According to the evidence, “...77 percent of the highest-achieving women had strong ties with an inner circle of two to three other women with whom they communicated frequently.”(1) It is affirming that size and composition are not the sole characteristics of a network that works.
Although this may not seem particularly progressive, it is an improvement from connections and affiliations rooted solely in outdated notions of looks, compliance, or stenographer pool aptitude. That being said, there is still a dichotomy in perceptions of what qualities promote success. The networks study touched on this, perhaps in an unintentionally ironic way, in revealing the female networking secret of being “energy-balanced.” The successful women, “...demonstrate[d] both competence and warmth, both intelligence and emotional intelligence, as studies—the researchers’ and others—suggest they must [do] to build trust.” Rob Cross, one of the study’s authors, observed, “[t]he most successful women don’t downplay their knowledge, skills and accomplishments; they show evidence that they can do things…But they also use humor, presence, and small gestures to signal caring and positivity….”(2) Competence and intelligence for all? Yes. But, warmth and small gestures? Yes, if the measures were assessed equally in both men and women. More than likely, this will remain a challenging path to navigate.
Recognizing the challenges, the panelists noted collaborative and collegial professional environments must be nurtured. There is responsibility not only to support, and be supported by, one’s networks, but also to participate authentically in the day-to-day. Opportunity lies in the mundane to shape relationships and to take and receive advice. Being prompt, specific, and reciprocal were omnipresent themes of the panelists’ comments.
Give specific, targeted comments, and be open to receive feedback.
Feedback needs to be timely. Give kudos right after a subordinate gives a great brief, and prompt feedback after a misstep— feedback is best when it is fresh.
You need to be approachable so that your people can talk to you.
Ask targeted questions. How am I doing? is too broad to get a good response, instead use something like, What did you think about what I said at the offsite?
You need to be firm, fair, and friendly, and develop relationships with subordinates who feel comfortable giving you honest feedback.
There is a limit to the number of people one person can effectively manage. Knowing that is the best way to maintain sincerity and tailor feedback to specific personalities.
Subordinates, superiors, and peers must be able to communicate effectively with one another: to learn, to teach, to exchange information, and to relay both good news and bad.
One of the key benefits of this communication chain is to promote one’s own professional competence. During the question-and-answer period, the audience asked the panelists how to become a “go to” person. The answer was simple: tell people! People inside and outside the team or organization need to know you are interested in more - more responsibility, more challenge, and potentially, more advancement. Ask to go along to a briefing, communicate the desire for opportunities, speak up.
Professional networks provide more opportunities to act. Your network is not a safety net to protect you from falling – those connections are your guidelines to help you make it to the top. Use it!
If you’d like to contact Cherish Joostberns, CANA Resource Lead, you can reach Cherish at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’d like to contact Renee Carlucci, Principal Operations Research Analyst, you can reach Renee at email@example.com.
1. Hallgren-Rezac, G., Thomson J., and Rezac, D. (2019, March 6). Opinion: Women’s networks are key to leadership success. BCBusiness. https://www.bcbusiness.ca/Opinion-Womens-networks-are-key-to-leadership-success
2. Harvard Business Review. (2019, November-December). The Secrets of Successful Female Networkers. Harvard Business Review. Harvard https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-secrets-of-successful-female-networkers