Your Network is Your Net Worth

By Jamar Johnson-Thompson

Oct 5, 2022

Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a series of articles written by members of the Arena Analytics Ethics Advisory Board examining barriers to employment in today’s workforce. Arena strives to take a highly ethical approach toward using advanced technology to create long-term change in the workforce by eliminating obstacles to opportunity and success for individuals and organizations alike. We are grateful to our Ethics Advisory Board members for their rigorous, ongoing commitment to helping us achieve that vision.

It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. These words are familiar to anyone hoping to secure a more prominent or influential role in their career of choice. The “what” refers to one’s demonstrated capabilities – the practical application of learning and experiences. The who refers to one’s network – the collection of connections an individual makes over the course of their lifetime. For professionals, a connection can represent an opportunity for a business deal, a sale, a job, or other venture. This opportunity is what makes networking so valuable to success. But what does one do when faced with barriers to networking? How does one achieve some version of success when he or she is excluded from creating such connections?

A Critical Element to Success

When entering the workforce, many of us believe if we work hard enough, our efforts will be recognized and we will be rewarded based on our performance. Harvey Coleman, author of Empowering Yourself, the Organizational Game Revealed, tells us that the secret to career success is based on three key elements: performance, image, and exposure. In this sense, image refers to one’s professional brand – or what others think of you. So, while there is some truth to believing that working hard will get you ahead, the reality is that performance only equates to about 10% of one’s success. 30% of career success is based on image, and the remaining 60% is based on exposure – how many people know an individual and what he or she contributes. Said differently, a staggering 90% of a person’s career success is dependent upon how connected they are and the opinions of those connections.

Why it Makes a Difference

Well-networked (and high performers), often achieve career success. Entrepreneurs with expansive networks can scale their business by leveraging relationships in their network – either directly or indirectly through varying levels of degrees of separation – for new deals and business partnerships. In a corporate environment, highly exposed professionals will likely receive more recognition, more opportunity, and more elevation. Conversely, entrepreneurs with little-to-no network will have difficulty finding investors, partners, and customers. Professionals without networks are often overlooked for opportunities, including those for advancement.

Networking Made More Difficult

For underrepresented communities like people of color, people with disabilities, and women, networking has always had its challenges. To often, these groups are prevented from networking successfully due to barriers of bias, stereotypes, or lack of access. “Successful” networking means building relationships with people who have influence and control opportunity – typically, white men.

Too often, cultural differences severely limit one’s ability to advance. Consider how many “networks” are formed organically – through shared educational institutions, professional relationships, or common interests. These organic networks often exclude people who did not attend higher education, have limited professional experiences, or don’t share such interests (like golf, perhaps). Further, research shows that people of color network almost exclusively within their own race. In essence, people of color are not invited to networks with opportunity, but they are also not seeking them.

Remote work could potentially worsen the networking experience for underrepresented communities. Since the opportunity for casual “water cooler” conversations or run-ins on the elevator are essentially a thing of the past, women, people of color, and people with disabilities could be at a significant disadvantage. After all, out of sight, out of mind. As organizations decide what a return to office looks like, studies show that White men are almost twice as likely as their Black female counterparts to have a desire to return to the office. Imagine the impact of only one demographic (no matter which) having in-person interactions. To overcome the barriers of virtual networking, one must be intentional and seek to move passed cultural differences – an idea many people of color struggle with.

Increasing Access with Employee Resource Groups

When an organization acknowledges the challenges that underrepresented groups face, the next logical step is to develop approaches to overcome them. Today, many enterprises have formalized equitable networking by creating employee resource groups, or ERGs. Typically, ERGs are employee-led professional organizations that are established to create opportunities for the business, employees, and the communities they serve. ERGs represent an underrepresented or marginalized affinity group based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, military service, ability, age, religious belief, or other identifying characteristic.

Generally, the aim of employee resource groups is to create spaces for likeminded individuals to connect and network. To be successful at this objective, many ERGs adopt the “4-C Operating Model” to help guide their initiatives. Dr. Robert Rodriguez, who developed the model, says that ERGs are successful when their initiatives align with one or more of the following: career, commerce, community, and culture.

Career covers the aspects of developing employees professionally through seminars and workshops and by serving as a talent engine for the company – by either identifying internal talent or using internal talent (and their networks) to find external candidates. Workshops, like those for resumes or interviews, are a great opportunity for professional development for several reasons. Aside from optimizing one’s resume or enhancing one’s interviewing skills, participants are expanding their networks in a meaningful way: connecting with recruiters. Keep in mind that a common challenge that many marginalized groups face is lack of networking with people of influence, so formalized connections in this manner are valuable.

Commerce initiatives are those which focus on market penetration and consumer insight. They apply particularly well to B2B companies. As companies move towards more customer-centric models and inclusion, understanding how a company markets to a particular segment is critical to business strategy. ERGs can augment (to some degree) the need for focus groups and other market research activities since most customer segments already exist within a company’s workforce. In participating in these focus groups, employees connect with each other and influential business leaders seeking to understand more about a segment. This creates a dual-value proposition for both employees and the business.

Community-based initiatives are large drivers of one’s network expansion. Often, employees will participate in community-based programs that align with existing or new interests, thus creating alternate spaces for likeminded individuals to connect. Though there are a variety of ways to give back to the community, in-person events like food drives and park restorations increase the amount of exposure one receives many times over. It is during meaningful work that conversations can be sparked, and long-lasting connections can be made.

Culture initiatives fall into two categories: sociocultural and company. Sociocultural initiatives are those that educate and inform, usually using common traditions, habits, or customs as a focal point. This can be represented in the form of a company acknowledgement of Black History Month or a company-sponsored donation to a local Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). Company culture initiatives are those that celebrate an organization’s shared set of values, goals, and attitudes. Regardless of the celebration or acknowledgment, these events bring employees of all levels together and enable collaboration and networking. This is particularly important as it gives those with influence an opportunity to connect with those without.

The 4-C operating model for ERGs creates a sustainable and impactful way for employees to increase the size and depth of their networks. Those who lead the ERGs increase their networking opportunities significantly as well. Each initiative starts with a connection from the ERG to the sponsoring business segment, and that connection is usually made through a member of the ERG’s leadership team. Additionally, some organizations require each employee resource group to have one or more executive sponsors. These sponsors are influential leaders within the organization that can help drive the ERGs success and expand the networks of and number of opportunities for ERG leaders and members.

Your Network is Your Net Worth

If “your network is your net worth,” then marginalized communities are usually more disadvantaged than non-marginalized communities. However, this inequity does not need to persist. Since talent is evenly dispersed, but opportunity is not, the journey to equity and fairness starts with acknowledgment of the disparities in access to opportunity. Once organizations and professional communities recognize such truths, they can begin taking the necessary steps to reduce (and hopefully remove) such disparities. A simple, but powerful step in the right direction is the adoption of affinity-based groups – employee resource groups or other professional networks — that are funded and coupled with executive sponsorship. Those with influence and expansive networks should make every effort to use such tools for the benefit of everyone.

Jamar Johnson-Thompson

VP, People Technology

Jamar has more than 19 years of experience in the information technology field, including software development, functional and automated test development and execution, and requirements analysis. He is especially skilled in providing thorough, reusable, and customer-oriented solutions for internal and external business customers. Additionally, he is a passionate and dedicated contributor to the Workforce Diversity & Inclusion realm.