I have always used my own career as proof that knowledge, skills and a driving work ethic were “all” you needed to succeed. I entered the business workforce not even convinced I wanted to be there, believing that an academic path was still my sure route to success and this first job was just a way to pay the rent. I’ve told you what happened: I fell in love with business, helped in no small part by serving the mission of The New York Times, and, in the blink of an eye, I ended up on a career trajectory that led me to assume the stewardship of an information services company for more than a decade.
I was smart and hard working but I was also lucky. I had the good fortune to build my career with enlightened managers who gave me opportunities, allowing me to grow and develop my skills. Each new job and each new company brought more challenges and more responsibilities and more learning. And, most importantly, more people in my network.
I always understood the value of relationships throughout the industries my companies served. I was involved with the Newspaper Association of America, the Advertising Research Foundation, Advertising Women of New York and I could go on and on. I gave talks and sponsored breakfasts. When good friends and clients had kids who needed internships, we certainly considered them first.
Early on, like most ambitious women of my generation I was wary of the power of the “Old Boys Networks” that seemed ubiquitous. The Urban Dictionary defined these as “…not necessarily purposeful or malicious, but…entails establishing business relationships on high-priced golf courses, at exclusive country clubs, in the executive sky-boxes at sporting events…arenas from which women and minorities are traditionally excluded and thus are not privy to the truly serious business transactions or conversations.” We were advised to make use of these networks by finding a sponsor, a senior executive who would see our terrific work, and would take us under his wing, ensure our visibility and protect us when necessary.
Research from Catalyst found that sponsorship was the key to closing the leadership gender gap. Women were more likely to be mentored than men within an organization, but men’s mentors were more senior and more likely to advocate for them. “Women gain sponsors most effectively by promoting their own accomplishments. Women who highlighted their achievements advanced further, were more satisfied with their careers and had greater compensation growth than women who failed to blow their own horns. …Unfortunately, self-promotion is often considered unladylike, and women who negotiate on their own behalf are penalized.” (Ilene Lang, Harvard Business Review, November 2011). A sponsor within the organization can help position an ambitious woman most effectively.
What happens when the chicks duck out from under that protective wing? For me, I learned I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. I’ve made a miscalculation without a guiding hand to steer me, even with all of my experience. Once I became a CEO all of my energy, time and attention were focused on running the company and I no longer paid any attention to my career. I loved my job and, if and when I stopped loving it, I knew I would not go to another corporate role.
Flash forward: I stopped loving it, I quit, went back to school, got my coaching accreditation and set up a thriving consulting and coaching practice. But I am still ambitious and miss being passionate about a company; I miss being involved in the workings of a business. A board seat seems perfect for me. After all, I had sat on a number of non-profit boards; I serve in an advisory capacity to a for-profit company. I had run a mid-sized company for more than a decade with substantial profit growth and I had developed partnerships with international players in the same space. This should be quite doable.
So far, not so doable. I’ve had a few interviews. During one interview with a company in which the venture capital backers were seeking a board member the 24-year-old CEO of the technology-based market research start-up kept me waiting for more than a half an hour, then pretty much told me I was too old to be of much help to him. After the second interview he offered me advice: I should try to sell myself more.
In another interview the VC people told me I’d be a perfect addition to the board they were looking to grow. I never heard from them again.
I recently attended a talk given by the head of Board Practice at one of the major recruitment firms. Her message was clear: to get on a board you have to be qualified and you have to be known. CEOs and boards are looking for specific skill sets and they pay attention to board dynamics and therefore they turn to the people they know and trust to fill a seat or to make recommendations.
I should have been planning this stage of my career much earlier. Men do, and in doing so they work their network more strategically over a longer period of time. What you know is important, critically so. But who you know is the means to connecting your knowledge and experience to the organizations where it is best used.
“Sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.” —Ellen DeGeneres