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Hidden behind a purple velvet curtain in the members-only Garrick Club in London, there was once an infamous list of men who voted on whether to allow women to become members. In 2015, when the list first came out, there was an outcry: here were high-profile men from the world of politics, business and the creative industries hobnobbing together in a private setting, and still excluding people solely based on their sex and their social status.
Everyone is aware of the power of casual networking, and how the right connections can help to forward a career or even grow a fortune. And though the places where privileged men once sat in smoke-filled rooms discussing business ventures are thankfully becoming more obsolete, that isn’t necessarily good news for everyone else. As of March, coronavirus has effectively locked us all in our homes and the events and conferences that would allow us to meet new people have been cancelled. All of the conversations that once took place in private rooms, golf courses, networking sessions, lunches and dinners have simply moved online, and have become less accessible than ever before.
Those that rely on networking to make business deals and sales will be forced to look through their existing contact books — and could come up empty handed.
Networking is a core part of the UK’s conference scene, which generated £32.1 billion in 2015 alone. The difficulty at conferences is not meeting everyone you can; it’s targeting the right people. In recent years, events have been lambasted for being a useless waste of time — often you’re presented with a sea of fellow networkers who you don’t really want to meet or care about at all.
Theoretically, if you are over 40, your professional network has peaked. Under lockdown, you’ve never been in a better position to put some distance between yourself and younger, less experienced peers, in jobs that require you to ‘press the flesh’. Even though people are using Zoom and email to introduce themselves and set up meetings during the pandemic, it still can’t compare to picking up the phone and calling a long-standing contact for a favour. Now, that kind of networking magnetism is more powerful than ever before.
The pandemic has caused thousands of businesses to buckle, and made the remainder fearful about the future. Companies are rethinking their own headcount and future business investments. In a harsh environment like this, it’s unlikely that business are going to want to get rid of the person with all of the valuable business contacts.
The exact same logic that applies to high flying executives making connections in private members clubs applies to any workplace. If you’re someone who has made deep personal and professional connections with your boss and higher management, you’re still more likely to be handed better working conditions and more of a leadership position in a team whether it’s earned or not. As teams go online, people who don’t have any prior ties to their bosses will inevitably feel less visible where more opportunities are shared in one-on-one discussions rather than the open office. In this type of environment, it’s easy for one person to be valued and listened to above others, to be treated very differently, and to slide, unchecked, into a toxic culture of favouritism or even nepotism which can seriously undermine a company.
In the business world there has always been nepotism and bias — whether unconscious or otherwise — at every level. It’s no coincidence that there are still more men called David than women or ethnic minority CEOs in the FTSE 100. The Hampton-Alexander Review recently revealed that the target of 33 per cent women on boards of FTSE 100 companies had been met, but also pointed out that very few women are in senior and executive roles. Since the lockdown, many companies have understandably moved to prioritise their response to the crisis, leaving schemes like mentoring, diversity and blind recruitment by the wayside. But not having this front of mind could entrench perceived unfairness in the workplace.
A survey released in March showed that one in five women believe they have been passed over for a promotion at work in favour of a male colleague — this was before the pandemic struck. Laura Liswoos, secretary-general of the Council of Women Leaders at the World Economic Forum, argued that the widespread use of videoconferencing could be an opportunity for workplaces to become more inclusive. “It is no longer acceptable for a few people to dominate, interrupt or appropriate ideas. Managers running calls have a duty to ensure a level playing field when they mediate conversations,” she wrote in a blog post.
Unfortunately the playing field has never really been level for women or ethnic minorities. In 2011, researchers from INSEAD business school followed 1,815 male and female Wall Street analysts with the same number of school-based connections. They found that men were more likely to get professional help from their contacts than women. Racial biases can also play a major role in networking’s effectiveness. And, age, weight and other factors often matter as well.
But it’s not game over for people who haven’t had years to become best friends with their bosses. After all, the length of time you may have spent in a job or networking doesn’t necessarily equate to having great contacts: even if you know lots of names, they might still be useless. One of the major sources of blind spots for executives is that they are so focused on their industry that they lose sight of the competitive changes that are affecting their arena, says Rita McGrath, Columbia Business School Professor and corporate consultant. In her book Seeing Around Corners, she argues that only meeting and networking with like-minded executives can stop people from identifying inflection points that could affect their businesses. If executives are as aware of this as they should be, it could provide an opportunity for people outside of their inner circle to get their foot in the door. The pandemic hasn’t changed the basic principle behind attending hundreds of networking events, which is trying to charm the right people into becoming valuable contacts and to create beneficial long-lasting relationships.
Now that the casual “bump ins” at the club and the golf course cannot happen, there is a huge opportunity for savvy people to build their networks, says Dave Stachowiak, host of the Coaching for Leaders podcast. “The person who’s willing to be a little courageous right now, and to jump in to help or to do a reach-out that they may not normally do in normal times, I think potentially could move a lot faster on building the network, because there’s so much work to be done.”
If you want to advance and move up, go find a problem to solve in the organisation, go find a client issue to solve, he suggests. And if you actually put some time and effort into solving it great. “For the person who’s willing to send the email, pick up the phone, set up a quick zoom session with someone and say, Hey, where do you need help right now? that that could go a long way. It’s not going to go a long way with everyone, but it could go a long way with a couple of key people.”
This is all fine advice for those in an organisation without obvious cultural issues. But if you try to make connections within your business during the lockdown and immediately hit a brick wall, it should be a wake up call to focus on building a profile externally — and get out as soon as you can.
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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