Advanced interpersonal communication skills enable women executives to scale the career ladder.
By Scott Williams
Hispanic Business® magazine, April 2002
Show up early, work hard, excel at your job. A formula for career success? Not quite, according to career experts and members of this year’s Hispanic Business 80 Elite Hispanic Women. In addition to keeping your nose to the grindstone, they say, moving up the career ladder requires networking – and the higher you go, the more your network matters. “You’re more interdependent at higher levels because you can’t run a company and do everybody’s job,” explains Rebeca Johnson, vice-president of ethnic and urban marketing at the Frito-Lay Inc. division of PepsiCo and a member of the Elite Hispanic Women. She adds that upperlevel positions carry a higher risk, and job evaluation at these altitudes involves a lot more executive feedback – magnifying the importance of having friends in the right places. This year’s directory includes more of those places. Last year’s Hispanic Business Top 50 Women in Business (April 2001) feature listed managers at Fortune 1000 corporations. The new Hispanic Business 80 Elite Hispanic Women directory includes 50 women from the business sector, 17 from government, and 13 from academia to portray a broad range of progress in ethnic and gender diversity. Psychologists have long pointed out that women seem to have an advantage over men in situations that demand interpersonal communication skills. The consulting firm Hartwick Humanities in Management Institute even cites Cleopatra as an example of leadership networking! But Donna Fisher, author of Professional Networking for Dummies, ($21.99, Hungry Minds), says networking sometimes can be more difficult for women despite their natural abilities. “The problem is that most women have not … given themselves permission to use those strengths in their careers,” she maintains, meaning they enjoy helping others but not necessarily helping themselves. Women must learn to be more assertive, to speak up and to ask for what they want, she adds. Patricia Romero Cronin, vice-president of global e-business integration for International Business Machines (IBM) and a member of the Elite Women, recalls how reaching out at the right moment brought her opportunities that otherwise would have slipped away. At a previous position at IBM, Ms. Romero Cronin was assigned to deliver technology for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. She got the job in part because she had built up contacts with other Spanish-speaking employees throughout the corporation. Her Spanish communication skills proved necessary because IBM had chosen a technical group in Madrid, which had worked on the Barcelona Olympics, to write and test 13 million lines of code for the Sydney Games. Ms. Romero Cronin put out calls for Spanish-speaking IBM employees through her personal network of contacts, and within eight days she had 26 Spanish-speaking employees working in Madrid. That helped IBM overcome a six month backlog in work and deliver the technology on time, a feat that Ms. Cronin credits with advancing her career. Networking for success stretches beyond the workplace, often extending to social events and nonprofit organizations. Cari Dominguez, chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), tells how involvement with a charity event early in her career put her on the fast track. It happened when Ms. Dominguez volunteered to serve as one of 10 Bank of America coordinators for the annual United Way fund-raiser. By chance, Bank of America Chairman Samuel Armacost served as local chairman of the campaign. “Because he was the [San Francisco] Bay Area campaign chairman for that year, he was very closely tracking who was doing what and how much money each of us had raised,” says Ms. Dominguez. While others grumbled about taking on the job, Ms. Dominguez, who was new at the bank, welcomed it as a way to get exposure and show what she could do. She wound up organizing a variety show featuring economists and financial analysts as performers, including a prominent economist who tap-danced. “It raised a ton of money, and that’s what got me noticed by the CEO,” she says. “The next thing I knew, my career took off.” Ms. Fisher believes successful networking comes from listening, gathering information, and becoming a resource for other people. “You’re primarily looking to help them out,” she says. “You don’t want to be in a social setting and come across as looking for a prospect. It’s not just a one-way street. A network is a flow, a two-way street.” Ms. Romero Cronin emphasizes sharing information with people in her network. She makes it a point to find out what they are working on, and she searches for points of view that differ from her own. Taking an interest in others tends to motivate them to return the favor, Ms. Fisher confirms. “That’s human nature. When someone does something for you, you want to do something for them,” she says. Ms. Johnson has always understood how she could help others achieve their goals, but only recently began asking others to help her achieve her own. “I thought in terms of doing the right thing and being a good worker,” she explains. “As long as I did good work, the authorities would come down and reward me. But that’s not the way things work.” Getting to the highest levels of an organization often means entering an inner circle of management dominated by Anglo males. According to Ms. Johnson, breaking into that circle requires that you have an assignment important enough to ensure access to those people. And once you have access, make sure you show what you can do. Ms. Fisher says that although minorities and women may find it difficult to break into the inner circle, they can benefit from standing out as one of the few in the group who are not Anglo males. “My advice to minorities would be to look for the commonalities,” she stresses. “We have a whole lot more in common than we do differences.” Ms. Dominguez, a former partner at the executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles, recommends establishing a home base by joining a women’s group or a Hispanic organization and then expanding your network to broader-based groups that include the powers-that-be. She also suggests joining only those groups whose missions you wholeheartedly support, to allow your commitment and enthusiasm for the objective to shine through. “I think if you join an organization only because it’s a good networking opportunity, rather than because you can give something to the organization, you’re already on shaky ground,” Ms. Dominguez cautions. During times of economic instability, a professional network functions as a safety net as well as a career ladder. On a practical level, a good network can help you find your next job. “It’s important to keep those connections and always build that support system,” Ms. Fisher observes. “Don’t wait until you have a need,” she says, “build the network so that when the need for it arises, the network is already in place and you can respond quickly and easily.” The ability to network involves specific skills that can be learned. E-mail makes it easy to keep in touch and disseminate information to people who might find it useful. But networking also involves forging bonds and expressing your personality, particularly the characteristic of trust, says Ms. Johnson. The risks and pressures inherent in upper-level management require a great degree of trust among coworkers, and trust is earned through consistent performance, a clear understanding of what you stand for, and others’ ability to anticipate your responses, she adds. “People around you need to know you will push the envelope, but you won’t take anybody over the edge,” Ms. Johnson explains. “It’s an image I would project regardless of what ethnic background I’m from.” Related article: Glass Ceiling Cracked, Not Shattered
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