Think of something you know you should do, but likely put off. While eating more salad, exercising after work or scheduling a dental check-up might be on your list, for many women, ‘networking’ is the activity they avoid the most.
That’s unfortunate, since Paula Price, the highly admired director of top corporates including Mutual of America Financial Group, credits purposeful networking for her career ascent into some of Manhattan’s most respected boardrooms.
And, while Paula told me how she learned to make networking more comfortable and focused, she adds that it remains a critical skill for a seasoned director like herself, advocating for diversity and inclusion in America’s largest companies.
Relationship-building to gain access
Having consulted and gained early-career exposure to disparate industries, from consumer products to financial services, Paula had no qualms about diving into new challenges, sectors and business models. “I enjoyed applying my growing skillsets and experiences to different situations and learning new ways of doing things. That’s been one of the greatest joys of my career and it’s still fun,” she says.
“The challenge, however, was just gaining access to new roles and experiences that interested me because people tend to think of those who are most like themselves when they’re hiring for those opportunities,” explains Paula, noting that unconscious bias still permeates the typical workplace.
Fortunately, Paula persisted. She described to me how, “I always believed that I could compete and succeed in the role ifI could just get on the slate of candidates. To do so, I would identify people who had careers and skills that I wanted to emulate, and I would intentionally network and build relationships with those who were directly or indirectly in the hiring chain. And I didn’t wait until jobs came up, I would build relationships early on, so my name would be ‘on the tips of their tongues’ when opportunities arose.”
And Paula’s approach is prudent, in light of research that suggests that 70% of jobs are not published and as much as 80% of those positions are filled through personal and professional connections.
Making networking more innate
While networking may be a no-brainer, I couldn’t help but wonder about women who find this approach uncomfortable, too ‘political’ or wearying. Paula’s response: “I completely understand that sentiment because networking isn’t something that I do naturally. However, I realized that I wouldn’t get ahead by just keeping my head down and doing my work. People need to know your hopes and dreams and capabilities, so networking is important. In fact, when I reflect on my career, I can think of a person who helped me make almost every big move I’ve made. I didn’t just say ‘I want this job’ and it happened. I had to network my way into each role.”
But how can a nervous networker ‘wade’ into this relationship-dependent work world? “What worked for me,” explains Paula, “was having a focus and a clear agenda to start the conversation. For example, I might ask someone I respect to critique a presentation or analysis I had prepared and then set up some time to go over it with them. In my experience, true leaders love to help, but you need to find a way for them to get to know you and contribute in a meaningful way.”
Most importantly, Paula advises that, “Since everyone is super busy, and you don’t want to waste their time, the more you can make it easier for them to help you, the better. To do so, be as clear as possible, and don’t leave them guessing what you want. Depending on the situation, you might explain your aspirations, tell them what you admire about them, or ask specifically what you want to know. For example, if you seek an introduction to another executive, at the right time you might ask, ‘Would you be willing to…?’ I’ve found that people respond very well to this approach.”
Board-level relationships drive diverse outcomes
Paula points out that networking isn’t just necessary for a nail-biting newcomer, since she still leans on relationship-building as a senior corporate director: “When you join a board, in addition to helping maximize shareholder value, you likely have a second agenda — to promote a topic that you care deeply about — and you look for ways to introduce that into the board conversation. Sometimes if you are the only woman at the table, that can be a lonely conversation, so you have to be very courageous and persist in bringing up whatever issue you care about. Often, you need to build and apply relationships on the side to develop support for your ideas.”
For Paula, she’s a steady boardroom advocate for gender parity and racial equity, including compensation and more balanced representation, and breaking the bias among corporate decision-makers: “We really do benefit when we promote and encourage environments that bring all of our unique skills and experiences to bear. Conversely, when we perpetuate biases, we diminish the outcomes and our overall competitiveness. Being relentless about breaking the bias is very enlightened and an important goal.”
Believing firmly that leaders have both the ability, and a responsibility, to address bias, Paula advises that, “From whatever seat you are in, you can encourage a more diverse slate of hiring candidates, because if you don’t have a diverse slate to begin with, you certainly won’t have diverse outcomes. That means interviewing different candidates, influencing decisions, and mentoring people to help them gain the necessary skills and access.”
As a director, Paula also leverages data to drive action. “I often start with the data, by asking for it, reviewing it, forming the right questions, and then following up on the actions. It’s easier now to promote gender parity, since it’s on everyone’s mind, and investors and proxy holders are seeking greater transparency on the issue. It’s also getting easier in this virtual world because we can now access people across different geographies, and people are getting more creative about building solutions,” says Paula. She adds that, as a board member, she can make helpful connections with executives at other companies that are making more progress on diversity and inclusion to share best practices.
Paula has also observed first-hand how progress accelerates as diversity improves: “I can tell you that when a board has two women, these important conversations are easier. With three women, even better, and when you get four women on a board, watch out!”
Despite her optimistic outlook, Paula shares sincere advice with the women she mentors regarding the sometimes-lonely post of a female leader or director: “Be kind to yourselves, be forgiving of yourselves and, remind yourself how fabulous you are and all you’ve accomplished. The more senior you become, the fewer people there are to remind you of those things, so you must uplift and sustain yourself, to stay healthy and motivated.”
Praise ourselves? Celebrate our achievements? For some women, those action items might feel as uncomfortable as networking, but as Paula concludes, “If you don’t do those things, no one else will, so make yourself visible and heard, find ways to break the bias for others, and be kind. That’s how we’ll foster the difficult but necessary change we all want to see in this world.”