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The Five People You Need in Your Network

In a recent post, we shared how the informal organization creates hidden barriers for women’s career progression. We saw your incredible level of interest in this topic, so now we are digging deeper. In this post, we will share with you how you can overcome these hidden barriers by taking a portfolio approach to your network.


Here are five key people you need in your portfolio.

1. The Sponsor

Women are over mentored and under-sponsored. A sponsor is willing and able to use their resources to support your career. They act as though they have a stake in your career success – whether it be by putting you forward for promotion, giving you stretch assignments, or facilitating introductions to, and positive interactions with, key people in your organization.

The ideal sponsor is not necessarily someone you like. Human beings usually prioritize liking when deciding who to interact with. Even when considering who to ask for advice, we don’t ask the most expert or competent person we know, we ask the most expert or competent person whom we like. Do not make this mistake when searching for a sponsor. Of course, you need to develop a positive working relationship with your sponsor, but this should not be your main consideration.

The ideal sponsor also may not be someone you particularly identify with. Human beings tend to prefer relationships with people who are similar to them. For women, this often means other women. But senior women are usually overextended as sponsors because many junior women seek them out.

So if not liking or similarity, what makes an ideal sponsor? The answer is someone with clout. Ask yourself this question: amongst the senior leaders in your organization, who has a reputation for being powerful? Who can get things done? Who has a lot of influence? Ask the people you directly report to this question – they have a much broader view of the firm than you. The 2-3 names that keep coming up are probably the ideal sponsors.

2. Mentors

A mentor is someone who can guide you, coach you, provide a sounding board, and help frame problems for you. They usually are more experienced or advanced in their careers than you and have a network that they can put to work for you. Conversations with mentors can be deep and venture into potentially sensitive topics. For this reason, when searching for mentors, prioritize finding someone you like and trust – and who feels the same about you!

Ask yourself this question: amongst the senior members of your organization, who has given you feedback that has resonated? Who has gone above and beyond to help you? Whose opinion do you trust the most? The names that come to mind would make ideal mentors.

Note that we have said mentors. It is ideal to have a few mentors who can give you different views or perspectives on the challenges and questions you face.

3. The External Player

Our networks are often most focused on our current organization. This makes sense: an effective internal network can help you perform highly in your job. Interestingly, research shows that star performers often fail to replicate their high achievement in their next firm, because they can’t take their internal network with them. This underscores the importance of having a robust network outside of your organization.

An ideal network should deliver your next career move to you. If you only want to move up in your current organization, having a network that is predominantly within your organization is fine. But often people make the biggest jumps in salary and leadership when they move between organizations, meaning you need a robust external network.

The ideal external players are acquaintances who keep you plugged into industry trends that will help you stay on top of your game. They will also be mentors who can help you think differently about your career trajectory and alert you to jobs you might be interested in. Especially valuable can be people who supported you as mentors in your previous companies – keep these ties alive by reconnecting with them regularly and keep seeking their advice to maximize their effectiveness as external players.

Another good place to start when searching for external players is your dormant ties. Reach out to people who have left your organization, people you worked with in prior jobs, friends from university, etc. If you still cannot think of anyone, ask your sponsor and even your mentors if they have any external players to whom they might be able to connect you. Resolve to keep in contact with your external players regularly. An effective strategy is to set aside time every month for a call or a coffee with your external players.

4. The Successful Woman

One of our good friends works at a law firm that is notorious for promoting very few to the highest partnership level (equity partnership). Yet, the partner heading our friend’s team was an equity partner, and what’s more, she was promoted in her mid-30s – an incredible accomplishment. One evening when the team was out for a group dinner, our friend asked the partner how she had succeeded. The partner related to her that when she was an associate, the entire partnership in her team left for a different firm, so she approached the firm leaders and asked to be given responsibility for the team and its major clients. They took a chance on her, and she succeeded. This story tells us a lot about the leadership culture at her firm: it values individuals who are entrepreneurial, who are confident in their own abilities, and who are willing to take a risk. And most importantly, that this bold approach was equally well-received from women as it is from men.

For women, the path to leadership can feel like a labyrinth with many “catch 22s” and hidden dead ends. Women who have succeeded in your company or your industry will know how to navigate the idiosyncratic labyrinth that you may face and can advise you on how to do the same. Whether it be through organized events through your employee resource networks, via mentors and sponsors, or through your personal connections, know the stories of what the successful women ahead of you faced, and ask for their advice when you find yourself facing a barrier or block in your progress.

The first step is simple: Who are the women in your firm whose success you admire? Ask them to tell you their story.

5. A like-minded friend

We all know the value of a friend at work. Friends provide us with support when the work is stressful or politics turn toxic, a sense of belonging, and they make work fun! But for leaders, friendship is essential. Research shows that the most successful leaders – both in terms of their reputation and performance – are those who their co-workers (whether they be their subordinates, their peers, or their supervisors) see as friends.

Unfortunately, women’s friendship networks suffer at precisely the juncture in their careers when they need friends the most. Often women move into their first leadership roles around the time when they start having children. As women’s caregiving duties become more demanding, they may feel time-poor. They no longer feel like they have the luxury of eating lunch away from their desk or socializing with team members after work and their friendship network thins out.

What happens when, a year or two later, these same women face challenges at work, or see bias impeding their career progression? Lacking like-minded friends, they have lost a key resource for both emotional support and strategic problem-solving. Just as you invest in your career and in cultivating your relationships with mentors and sponsors, invest in cultivating, connecting with, and supporting your like-minded friends. They will bring you joy on an everyday basis, and be critical to how you navigate the toughest moments you face in the future.

Reading this, you might feel that you had those friends in the past, but then drifted apart as life got busy and hard. It can feel awkward, and wrong, to try to reconnect in the moment when you need your like-minded friend the most, we know. But we hope you will do so anyway. Just like you, your friend may need the support.


Remember, your network is an essential aspect of your work. It’s not a thing you do on the side, or an “add on” – it’s as important as your deadlines and deliverables.


Get in Touch

Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming newsletters and webinars.

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