Herminia Ibarra and Spish Rurak | Harvard Business Review | September 5, 2023
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.