March 2018 | Point of View

The “silent” challenge of creating equal networking opportunities

The “silent” challenge of creating equal networking opportunities

As part of a journey to strengthen our culture of inclusion, we began writing quarterly editorials last year designed to stimulate conversation about relevant and sometimes challenging topics. The idea is that healthy and open dialogue is an essential prerequisite to breaking down the barriers to inclusion. We are energized by the feedback to date, and are excited to continue this conversation into a second year 

To  kick off this year’s series, I’d  like to comment on   an article I recently read on the website of one of our partners, the Ellevate Network: “Sheryl Sandberg Just Nailed a Subtle Way Men Hold Women’s Careers Back.” 

The article reflects on how men can feel uncomfortable spending one-on-one time with the women with whom they work. As a result, they avoid dinners and other out-of-work events with women, thus limiting important networking (and presumably many other learning) opportunities for women at work. That struck a chord with me. As a leader in our firm, I spend as many as 12 hours a day working with people and building relationships with colleagues. 

In consulting, and especially here at West Monroe, doing great work is not enough. Our success depends on teams, not individuals. Relationships matter and are vitally important to one’s career success. That’s not to say you need to be a part of a “club” to be successful, but rather a reason we encourage and build relationship development into our workplace. For better or worse, with our extensive travel requirements and long working hours, it is inevitable that some essential relationship building activities will take place outside of normal working hours—whether that’s a breakfast meeting or a family picnic with coworkers after one of our quarterly meetings. 

However, as much as I believe in the importance of mentoring and networking, I also understand it doesn’t always feel comfortable—and typically that’s related to the activity itself more than the people participating in the activity. Dinners between male and female colleagues are an oft-cited example, but gatherings at bars can be uncomfortable for those who don’t drink, or large group outings can be difficult for introverts. 

We have heard from our people that they believe there is a distinct correlation between how “well-networked” they are and how strongly others advocate for their careers. While we have established checks and balances in our system of meritocracy to make sure we progress and promote people fairly, we recognize that if there is a perception of inequality, then there is an issue. 

As leaders, it is our responsibility to address it. More specifically, it is our responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to  be successful, and that means making sure everyone has equal opportunities to develop and nurture strong professional relationships both in and outside of the workplace. 

If we act in a professional manner and treat everyone with respect, networking in any situation shouldn’t be a problem. We need to recognize that not everyone is comfortable with every activity or situation, and the current social climate has perhaps cast an additional layer of caution and discomfort with out-of-work interactions. However, we cannot let some people’s bad behavior discourage us from doing what’s right. 

The article’s author poses three questions to ask yourself to make sure you are acting in an inclusive manner that creates equal mentoring and networking opportunities for all. 

  1. Is this an activity I can do with everyone? If not, then plan something different. 
  2. Who haven’t I spent time with, and why? Determine the steps you need to fix that.
  3. What can I do to be better? Ask yourself, but also ask your colleagues. 

My reaction to these is mixed. I disagree at some level with the first point. I think that in our world, good, long lasting relationships are borne out of unique situations and opportunities. What is comfortable for one colleague may not be for another. We need to be thoughtful about making sure  we  as  leaders  find a situation or opportunity that is right for each individual. If we try to find one setting that is “right” for everyone, we will fail. 

Rather, we need to give everyone a chance to build relationships in a comfortable way, and that leads to the second question, with which I do agree wholeheartedly. As leaders, and probably as importantly, as owners in our firm, we will do better work internally and for our clients by ensuring we know as many of our co-workers as possible, across all our practices and geographic markets. While it takes time, focusing on relationships with our colleagues up, down and across the organization so that we can best address our client needs is a non-negotiable. 

Finally, the third question is always relevant, not just to this situation. It is never a bad idea to ask for feedback. 

I would also add a fourth strategy, and that’s to ensure networking and mentoring relationships are viewed as a partnership within the organization. Mentorship is not a single thread—it benefits both people involved, and if we create a culture where everyone is getting value from relationship-building, we’re more likely to find ways to make these opportunities work. 

The one thing in the article with which I agree more than anything is this: creating an environment where all colleagues feel they have an equal chance to develop professional relationships is a challenge, particularly in this day and age. It is also largely a “silent” challenge, and one we won’t start to fix unless we are open to talking about it—which is what I hope this letter stimulates. To start the conversation, I’ve invited Kelsey Braak, a member of our Inclusion and Diversity Committee, to contribute her personal perspective on this challenge and how she thinks it should be addressed. We all have a role to play and important input to provide when it comes to building   a more inclusive environment at West Monroe.

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