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Reimagining Your Career Space

Strategic networking 101.

April 13, 2022
 
 

Last week, I had the pleasure and privilege of leading a session on reimagining the workplace at the fifth annual ACE Women’s Network Florida State Conference. This state network is part of the national system of networks in the Women’s Network at the American Council on Education. The focus is on advancing and supporting women in higher education. I have served on the board of the state network in Massachusetts since 2014, and I now serve on the Women’s Network Executive Council at the national level as well.

So, what did we discuss in reimagining the workplace? I tried to cover a few broad areas:

  1. The current state of affairs in today’s COVID-19 workplace;
  2. Reimagining your current workplace if you want to stay at your university and you are, potentially, seeking a promotion;
  3. Reimagining your future workplace if you are looking to move to another institution; and
  4. Reimagining what I am calling your current “career space,” which is larger than your workplace.

I’ve been working in the space of work and careers for many years now, but this work has seemed to increase in the last couple of years. The more I lean into equity, the more that work takes place in the space of careers.

Based on race and gender, some people are born into systems of privilege that are to their advantage. The rest have less privilege and less advantage, in a highly competitive system. Social networks are systems of privilege. Everyone has a network. Some of us just have networks that benefit from hundreds of years of systemic privilege. What can we do to create advantages to those who have not benefited from systemic privilege? This is challenging in so many ways, but I just want to focus on one thing here because it really resonated with the group last week.

In general, the women I coach, sponsor and mentor—especially those in higher ed—tell me that they do not like networking. When pressed, they admit that it feels transactional, fake, inauthentic, self-centered and selfish. Those are just some of the many words they have used to describe their lack of comfort with networking. When I push them, they admit to a certain amount of fear as well—fear of rejection, fear of being outside their comfort zone, fear of being ignored. Then we work on the reframe.

How can you reframe networking so you see it for what it is—a necessary component to a successful career? One technique that has proved to be powerful with women is a focus on the value of their networks and the importance of those networks to those students, staff and faculty whom they mentor and sponsor. If you don’t have a powerful network, you can’t share the power of your network with those you hope to empower. This reframe helps many women focus on building a network for others.

Once we agree that networking is important, we talk about strategic networking and schedule time for it on the weekly calendar. We create networking habits and networking goals, and we create accountability mechanisms.

What does this look like?

The first question you need to answer is, how do you grow your network strategically? You begin by setting goals, and to set goals, you need to analyze your current network to determine how you would like to grow it. Some examples include:

  1. I’d like to include more women college presidents in my network;
  2. I’d like to make sure there are more women who lead university research labs in my area of scholarship in my network; and
  3. I would like to have more women of color leaders in my field in my network.

Once you have identified goals, you define concrete steps to meet those goals. Where and how can I meet members of the group I have identified? What types of networking events, conferences and annual meetings should I attend to meet the people I would like to add to my network? Can I find them through my social networks via LinkedIn or Twitter? How do I leverage the people in my current network? Am I connected to people who are connected to those I want to meet? Can I ask for a “warm” introduction? An email introduction will usually suffice.

Once you have created a list of tactics that make sense for you, you decide how much time per week you want to dedicate to strategic networking. If you are currently looking for a job, you may want to dedicate more time. Then you block time on your calendar and you connect it to SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals. Maybe a goal is: I want to add two new higher ed policy experts to my network per month. You also lock it in with habits and schedule it on your calendar. What networking events will you attend? Whom will you reach out to for an exploratory conversation, virtual coffee date or in-person lunch or breakfast date? When will you do this?

Events with networks like the ACE women’s state networks are a great place to start.


Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement and director of the higher education administration program at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis.

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