On the whole, women are known to be excellent at building relationships. It’s one of our greatest strengths after all. Unfortunately, when it comes to leveraging those relationships to advance our careers or launch a new business venture, we too often “don’t make the ask.” Whether out of fear of seeming too “aggressive” or self-serving, failing to leverage the relationships we’ve worked so hard to build still represents a lost opportunity that is holding too many women back.
This is something that resonates personally with me. I’ve also observed it with the many women that I coach. And this is not simply based on my observations. Research conducted for the book “How Women Rise” found that female leaders are often more effective at building relationships, yet they fall short on leveraging those relationships.
The reality is relationships are meant to be leveraged. The cycle of “give and take” forms the basis for any relationship. More often than not, the person who is being asked for a favor or to make a connection WANTS to be asked. Most of us want to help, particularly those we’ve developed close relationships with.
I recently connected with my friend and fellow entrepreneur Desiree Vargas Wrigley, who is executive director of TechRise by P33 Chicago and founder of GiveForward and Pearachute, to explore the lingering hesitation among some women to leverage their relationships, and more importantly how they can get past that reluctance.
Desiree, as you and I know well, building relationships comes naturally for many women. Why is that not enough? What does it mean to “leverage” relationships?
Desiree: The concept of leveraging relationships is something women need to embrace. Leveraging relationships is not about taking for personal gain. It is about identifying how we can create value through the relationships we build. Too often, women hold back because we think we can only ask for a favor or a connection when we know we can reciprocate. If we can’t, we often don’t ask. That is limited thinking.
We need to redefine what reciprocity looks like. Asking someone for an introduction that can land you a job or a new client, or asking for advice on your business plan does not require “paying back” the person who did you the favor. There is intrinsic value in the ask that we all need to recognize. When someone in our network asks us for advice or a professional connection, that feels good. It provides the person being asked with an opportunity to give back and reflect on what they have achieved in their careers. That can be tremendously rewarding.
We need to get past this concept of “only ask when we can immediately reciprocate.” The time will come when you can pay it forward. We can’t let that hold us back from leveraging those contacts who can help us advance our careers.
Alicia: Completely agree. We need to get out of this “either-or” mentality. Leverage does not mean you are either “using” a person, or that you have only the most altruistic intentions. It’s OK to ask for help for your personal benefit. It’s OK to ask for that favor that could help you advance your career and support your family. No one will think less of you for doing so, certainly not the person you are making the ask of.
So why aren’t we as women better at this? What gets in the way of us fully leveraging the relationships we’ve built?
Desiree: I think fear holds many of us back—fear of asking for too much, of being judged, of getting ghosted. But we need to have the courage to make the ask in the first place. Women can be too resistant to borrow someone else’s “social capital.” There is a fear of being greedy with that social capital. One solution is to distribute your asks. Don’t ask the same person over and over again. Timing and frequency are everything when leveraging relationships. The bigger your network, the less of an issue this will be. Just remember, you are worthy of borrowing social capital as much as anyone else.
Also, try to avoid “apologetic asking.” Be confident in your ask and make the case that what you are requesting has real value and importance. Also, make it as easy as possible for the person you are asking to help you. Write emails that can easily be forwarded. Give them bullet points. Provide any pre-work you can upfront, including linking to the LinkedIn profiles of the person you want to meet with context for why that introduction is helpful. It makes that person’s task so much easier.
Many women have been conditioned to believe that leveraging relationships as we are describing here is “too aggressive.” How do we get past that?
Desiree: One of the ways to overcome the fear of coming across as too aggressive is to arrange a quick call so that the person you are asking is fully informed about the context of your request. Doing so helps to ensure that what you are asking is in line with what that person is able to provide. It also allows them to brainstorm any intros you may not have thought of, which could land you even better relationships.
And remember it feels amazing when you make an introduction that helps someone pay their mortgage or send their kids to school. That is enormously gratifying. Keep that in mind when you are apprehensive about leveraging a relationship. The opportunity to pay it forward is valuable, and the ripple effect for both parties can be amazing.
Often, we think of leveraging relationships with people who are further along in their careers than us. But what about leveraging relationships with younger women, as a way to pay it forward? Shouldn’t that be a focus as well?
Desiree: I’m very lucky in my current role that I’m exposed to many early-career female entrepreneurs. I love having the opportunity to hear their stories and brainstorm who in my network could be helpful to them. I get so much out of these 30-minute calls, in part because it allows me to reflect on all that I have learned over the last 12 years of being a founder. But I also love that I get the opportunity to pay forward what was given to me as an early entrepreneur. And, I learn so much about new ideas and new technologies. It keeps my own toolkit sharp.
So, what is your advice for women who want to be better at leveraging relationships, but don’t know how or where to start?
Desiree: I, like many young women, did very little to establish professional relationships in college. I earned good grades and had a lot of friends, but those relationships were strictly social. The result was I entered my career with no network at all. It took me years to build up a professional network, and it happened through many seemingly disconnected relationships.
Many women have the misperception of who can help us take our careers to the next level. The senior executive. The business owner. The well-established “expert” in our field. Sure, those people can help, but we need to broaden our horizons. The connections that can help you advance your career can be virtually anyone. For me, one of the most impactful professional contacts I’ve ever made was someone I served when waiting tables after college. It’s surprising how serendipitous those connections can be, and what even strangers will do to help you reach your goals.
So, put yourself out there. Surround yourself with the people who do what you want to do, or who know the people who do want you want to do. Take every opportunity to talk about what you want to achieve. When you put it out there, good things are bound to happen.
Alicia Del Real is president of The Center for Advanced Emotional Intelligence, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm that works with senior leaders to enhance their leadership capability and build thriving, sustainable organizations.