By Oriana Torres
If there is something that women can benchmark from men, is how –consciously and mainly unconsciously- they build effective support networks around them. Recently, while interviewing Babson College new President Kerry Healey around key advice for young leaders she could not emphasize enough on the importance for women to build a support network, defined as a unique group of diverse, loyal and enthusiastic individuals that are not only genuinely willing to invest in your success, that are vested in it and that cheer for you while you get it.
While the concept of network might sound overrated and there are infinite sources of information of what a network is and how to build one, this article is all about breaking mental models and inviting women to evaluate their network. Breaking mental models is all about rebooting the idea women self-sufficiency makes us heroes. Evaluating our networks is about recognizing that while many women might already have apparent core networks in our lives, its composition and motivation might not be ideal.
The ideal support network: ask yourself these 3 questions first!
The 3-question Test
Networks are sets of relationships critical to your ability to get things done, get ahead and develop personally and professionally (Ibarra, 1996). While the definition is very precise and assertive, I would like to “spice it up” with 3 key elements that might be taken for granted when it comes to building a network.
We all have families, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances … but does that automatically make them an ideal network to support our development as women, at home and in the workplace? I invite you to reflect on your own current networks and think about how they rate in the light of these three features.
Question 1 - Are they available to invest in your success?
To have people with a true desire to invest in your success is the building block for network building. People that have the readiness to support you succeed as a woman, must not only believe in your dreams and plans but they should have the availability (time, financial resources, other) and conditions (skills, abilities, attitudes) to help you make them happen. As a personal example, I have absolutely no doubt that my two sisters would do anything to see me succeed. But one of them lives miles away in Europe and the other one is autistic and for obvious reasons can’t support me in certain things. And yes, we are talking about extremely practical things here as picking up my child from school or cook a meal, while I am on a heavy workday in a particular season. This might be an extreme example, but it serves very well to illustrate the point.
Question 2 - Are they vested in your success?
Having someone willing and available to help you succeed (as we saw in the past question) does not imply that they are “vested in your success”. To have a vested interest is “to have a strong reason for wanting something to happen because you will gain from it”. While I do not mean to suggest that relationships should be transactional, the notion of vested interest makes willingness to support more sustainable. A professional sponsor or entrepreneurial mentor might be vested in your success: if you do succeed, she/he and industry, company or cause you both fight for might be better of. Another, and in my opinion the most important example is of course your spouse or partner: if you succeed (under the assumption that you both share what success means), your overall relationship, family and household will become stronger. As Sheryl Sandberg said, “the most important career decision a woman can take is deciding who to marry”.
Question 3 - Will they cheer for you while you get it?
On a day-to-day basis, energy is what keeps us going. If someone is helping you, his/her own satisfaction while doing so should exude. Cheering for you means being there just to listen, to give you constructive feedback, or to simply tell you “I am proud of you” or “Keep going” when it is most needed. You do not need robots that just get tasks done inside your network. You do not need people that despite being available and even vested in your success can’t relate to you and can’t have the level of enthusiasm to celebrate you.
Rejuvenating your network
When applying the 3-question Test for the ideal support network there is no wonder that family and mentors generally meet all three criteria. Sometimes however, we might be surprised that people in our core network just meet one or two of the three criteria. What is certain, however, is that there is nothing wrong if your network seems unbalanced right now, as long as you are aware of it and you start working on it. For this, you can use some on these quick strategies to start rejuvenating your network:
- “Talk to them”: Explore why some relationships appear so unbalanced. Do they really understand and accept your own definition of success? Are they supporting me out of generic responsibility or politeness, or do they really see this as a “win-win” relationship? If answers are not apparent to you, dare to have these difficult conversations and get to the root of the issues.
- “Use the 3-question filter actively to engage with new people”: You meet people daily and time helps you develop a relationship with them. Ask yourself the 3 questions actively and welcome people that can add value to you. Remember network members come in different shapes. In intermediate cities in Latin America, for instance, neighbors are key network members, so give yourself permission to see beyond the family, co-workers and friends circle.
- “Let people go”: There might be individuals that after deep conscious analysis, you realize were never meant to play certain roles in your life and it’s healthy to let them go. That does not mean you finish or truncate your relationships, but you might now locate them in a completely different place when it comes to supporting your path as a woman to success.
Vulnerability is power
Vulnerability is power. Many women, especially those of us of the “You can have it all” mentality, still can have the misconception that we can achieve “professional-personal balance” alone, by multiplying or cloning ourselves. Men have created for generations an ecosystem around them to advance in careers (being us women as partners and mothers their principal network members!) and now as women is our turn to move from only from being only “supporters” to be the “supported ones”. As the African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child”, same way, it takes a village for a woman to make his way into her own definition of success. And this village is your core network. Pick it wisely.