The Challenges of Networking as an Executive

Look online at any of the thousands of articles available on the challenges of networking for a job, and you’ll find that 100% of them give advice on how relatively junior professionals can network “up.”

But surprisingly little advice is available for senior executives, who experience a different but equally challenging set of networking hurdles. That’s a problem, because knowing how to reap networking’s full benefits is crucial for people at the top of the pyramid, especially a time when CEO turnover is at a record high.

We have decades of experience working with and studying senior executives who are making career changes. In this article, we’ll identify six common hurdles that that they often struggle with when it comes to career networking, and we’ll provide some guidance on how to get over them.

1) Reluctance to ask for help

Networking for a next role means asking for help. Research in social psychology shows that people with high status are more apt to feel pressure to maintain an image of strength and competence and to value self-reliance, all of which can make them reluctant to seek assistance. They fear rejection and worry that asking for help might expose perceived weaknesses, potentially undermining their status, position, or reputation. This is ego-driven reluctance, and we see it frequently. As one of Herminia’s students put it, “I give help — I don’t ask for it.”

One way around this tendency, which is a natural one, is to start your networking process by reaching out to lower-risk (and lower-yield) contacts — ideally, executives who you know well, who have done their own networking, and who can share not only how they approached others for help but also what they got out of asking for it.

You can probably do this with more people than you realize: As the Stanford social psychologist Xuan Zhao has found, people regularly underestimate others’ willingness to help, because they don’t realize how happy it makes those others to do so. Low-risk warm-ups and rehearsal practice — what Spish calls “hearing the dreaded words come out of your mouth” — will help you fine-tune your message, defuse your emotions, and experience success. And having a few positive experiences under your belt will make your later, more-challenging calls and emails easier.

2)  Prioritizing secrecy

The more senior an executive, the more likely they are to want secrecy, especially if they’ve been laid off. One of Spish’s clients, for example, asked: “How do I go out into the market without letting the market know that I’m looking? I’d like to reach out to people, but I don’t want them to know that I’m interested in looking.”

Such worries limit your exposure to others, which is a problem in its own right. But they also force you to be secretive as you work on networking and career change — a process, according to Herminia’s research, that often takes far longer than people expect. That burden of secrecy, carried for a long time, can exact a significant psychological toll.

Limiting your exposure to others can be especially pernicious when it keeps you from stepping back and exploring broadly what you would really like to do next. And try as you might, you won’t fool people by obfuscating. At senior levels, it’s a small world: The people you talk to can figure out what you’re up to, perhaps by making a call to a source in their own network, or perhaps just by doing a search online. If you do succeed in concealing your story, it’s likely to tax your nerves and cost you a lot of energy to get the same result that just speaking honestly and directly would have gotten you. With rare exceptions, honesty is the best policy.

3)  Unrealistic expectations

Because they’re reluctant to ask for help and don’t want word to get out that they are in the market for a new role, senior executives typically want to get their networking done fast. Or they simply assume that because they’re senior, the process won’t take very long. Unfortunately, the more senior you are, the more time you’re likely to need to find and align on the right fit. In Spish’s experience, the shortest possible search is about three months, and the longer ones can take as much as 18 months.

Not only does effective networking take a long time, it also involves a great deal of work, stamina, efficiency, and patience. There are three primary reasons for this.

First, as both of us have found, only a small percentage of people looking for their next role know exactly which handful of companies they’d like to work for. Because they don’t know enough about the market or what they really want to be able to come up with a targeted search, they have to start with research and very general exploratory networking. That all takes time.

Second, what you want and are best suited for may not actually be available to you. Both of us have seen highly qualified and experienced people take an excruciatingly long time to find their next role. One executive that Herminia recently observed thought, given his past experience, that he’d be an ideal candidate for the audit committee of a big corporate board, but as the selection criteria shifted to include a greater diversity of professional profiles, he found himself waiting to get a nod.

Third, most companies today have elaborate, time-consuming, and unpredictable vetting processes, which can often add months at the tail end of the hiring process.

In the senior-executive job market, it helps to recognize that in the messy meeting of supply and demand you have surprisingly little control. A great proactive tactic that can help you compensate for that as you do your networking is to fill your calendar with stimulating, parallel activities (community work, pro-bono consulting, short-term advising, adjunct teaching) in which you can have a more immediate impact and receive a more gratifying response. This compensates for the tedium, if not burden, of asking and waiting for help. It also provides battered egos with positive, if provisional, identities.

4) Not wanting to put in the work

Executives who are used to having things done for them often balk at devoting time to tedious work that they can’t delegate. But to network successfully, you need to treat the task as fully worth your time and energy — and you need to be methodical and organized about it.

To help with that, Spish has developed a networking process that consists of identifying and then contacting three kinds of contacts: information givers, door openers, and decision makers. Information givers are people who can tell you about the market, companies, and hiring trends; they can help you get smart and get over your fear of networking. Door openers are typically people you’ve worked with in the past. They’re responsive, and because they know you and your work style, they’re willing to vouch for you and can introduce you to the decision makers.

If you’d like to use this process, the best way to start is by first making a list of all your employers, clients, and customers, and then by writing down the names of the people you met in those roles. You might find you easily come up with 100 names.

No matter what approach you use to organizing, targeting, and segmenting your search, you’ll always need to start by generating a long list of people you’ve worked with and then methodically following a system for reaching out to them. Because it’s a learning process, you can’t plan it all out in advance; you’re better off adopting a “snowball” approach” in which you ask each contact who else you should meet. This is especially true if you’re looking in markets that are unfamiliar to you. In that case, you’ll need to network in what Spish calls “the valleys below the clouds.” There are lots of opportunities in these valleys, but they unfamiliar and require exploration. If you don’t explore them, you limit your options and can hurt your career growth.

It’s a high-cost, high-yield game, but it pays off. Spish has found that once you’ve reached out to 50 or more contacts on your list, the network will start to reach out to you, at which point you can let the process carry you forward.

5) Overly focusing on “the narrative”

Once you’ve made a contact, there is the important matter of what to say. All too often, executives spend the bulk of a networking conversation in small talk about shared contacts or experiences without getting to the point (that they need a new job) until the very end of the conversation. This is especially common when they feel they need to conceal the reality of what’s going on — that they don’t get along with their boss, say, or that they’ve been fired. When that happens, they often enter into the conversation already on the defensive, they speak evasively, and they devote their energy to protecting their public image instead of learning all they can. The end result is that they waste a lot of their — and their contacts’ — time.

Another unproductive tack is to spend 80% of your time trying to explain why you’re unhappy, or leaving, or got fired — a negative approach that anchors your conversation in the past when it should be positive and focused on the future. You’re much better off spending 20% of your allotted time explaining your situation and focusing the remaining 80% on what you’re looking for instead.

The best practice in networking conversations is to be direct, succinct, and positive. People want to know why you’re calling them and what you want from them, and the more senior they are, the more likely they’ll be to expect a brief, executive summary of this sort: “This is why I’m calling you. This is what I want from you. I hope that there’s enough in these two points for us to have a 10-minute conversation.”

6)  Failing to tailor your story

Executives looking to make a transition often spend inordinate amounts of time perfecting a single script — the fabled “elevator pitch” about their “core skills and abilities.” They do this assuming that this script will make them universally relevant, but almost invariably what they end up with just isn’t satisfactorily tailored to the needs of the receiver.

We’ve seen a lot of executives try to approach networking the way they would work with head-hunters: They write a generic email, just changing the name and one or two sentences, attach their resume, and send it out to a bunch of people. Likewise, many walk into a meeting and robotically state their one-minute pitch even if it doesn’t fit the unique circumstances and requirements of the person who’s listening.

That just doesn’t work. Yes, figuring out your core storyline (Who am I, and why am I here?) is important. But you can’t assume that you’re going to be saying the same thing about yourself to every person you meet. Nor can you assume that every listener is capable of translating your pitch into their own business context.

In the end, here’s what you need to remember: It’s not about you. If you hope to clinch a role for which you’re truly well suited, you need to figure out how to make the switch from talking about yourself to talking knowledgeably about the company and its problems — and then to articulating how well equipped you are to solve those problems. As Spish has found, that’s how you create opportunities for yourself: A large percentage of the most senior executives he’s coached have ended up moving into roles that didn’t even exist before they had their conversation.

* * *

When you’re a senior executive, networking is a delicate, complex, and time-consuming task. Ego and impatience, left unchecked, will sabotage your success. The best approach is to think of networking as an opportunity not just to scout out your next role but also to strengthen or deepen relationships you already have — and, even better, to add new relationships that will help you be a better professional in your new job and the others that come after it.

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