Risk & Network Tactics
How I Faced My Fear
Me with Marshall Goldsmith at Ebay in early 2020.
I’ve been writing a lot about networks because they are so instrumental to helping us rise in our careers and contribute to the wider world. When they work the help us make connections and access crucial resources and information while allowing us to do the same for others.
But for this dynamic to work effectively, we need to believe we have something to offer. This is why healthy networks require confidence, even as they help us to build it. But what if we don’t feel all that confident? What if we believe others in the network have more to offer than we do? What if we’re not sure that we really belong?
Such fears are common, especially when we suddenly find ourselves in a network that expands our potential to connect across a range of boundaries, or asks us to broaden our understanding of who we are. There are various ways to address this trigger of insecurity. For example, we may want to enlist one particular ally to help us get started.
But I’d like to share a simple method that proved startlingly effective for me.
In 1995, Marshall Goldsmith invited me to join The Learning Network (TLN), a group of authors, speakers, and consultants in the field of leadership. Because most of us worked alone and spent a lot of time on the road, we didn’t have the chance to meet many colleagues. So Marshall figured it would be helpful to bring a group of us together to serve as colleagues for one another and provide a core network of support.
I loved the idea. I worked with aspiring women leaders around the globe, work I found deeply satisfying but also rather lonely. I often envied the women in my client companies, who worked together on a daily basis, whereas I was always flying in and out. I had wonderful, inspiring experiences and responses, but then was off to my next engagement. I had a lot of friends but knew virtually no one who did what I did or shared my highly independent way of life.
Eager to participate, I showed up regularly at our TLN gatherings. Yet I struggled to believe that I really belonged. The problem was that I felt intimidated by many of the members, most of whom were men, many of them superstars with huge reputations.
Well-known, eagerly sought after, and spectacularly rewarded, these men commanded center stage at major conferences where I delivered small breakouts. At the time, women’s leadership was far from a hot topic, so I struggled for visibility and was not particularly well paid. Now, suddenly cast in with a lot of big shots, I felt like an also-ran.
Marshall kept saying that the purpose of our group was “to help one another and make our lives better.” This implied some degree of mutuality, the bedrock principle of a network. But while I certainly saw how I might benefit from most of the people in TLN, I believed I had little to offer these mostly wildly successful men. As a result, I spent most of my time bonding with the handful of other women. Without knowing it, I was turning what was intended as a robust and high-powered network into yet another single-gender referent group.
One evening, Marshall threw a party for us at his house outside San Diego. As usual, I was seated with a couple of the women, enjoying their company and sticking to my comfort zone. At one point, I noticed four of the men I found most intimidating enjoying a boisterous conversation. They looked like they were having great fun and I found myself wishing they’d ask me to join them—waiting for one of them to make the first move, as if this were a high school dance.
Then one of the women in my group began talking about how much my work meant to her because my focus on women’s strengths and contributions had given her more confidence in herself. Suddenly, I realized the extent to which I was selling not only myself, but the work I believed in, short. By indulging my own insecurities and clinging to a picture of myself as less-than, I was diminishing the value of what I contributed to the world.
It was time to take a risk.
I rose, walked across the room, and stood with the four men I’d been passively wishing would invite me to join them. I didn’t say anything; they were engrossed in their back-and-forth. I just stood there. I decided that this was all that was required of me at the moment. Standing up with the big guys was enough.
They didn’t particularly acknowledge me, but they didn’t seem irritated or affronted. They were just men doing their thing, having a good time. I maintained my position. I did not decide that not being instantly included in their conversation meant they found me unworthy. I did not slink off. I tried to send the message through my physical presence that I belonged, that I was one of them.
At last, one of them asked me a question and we began to talk. Others joined in and the conversation grew animated. I felt an intense sense of accomplishment: I’d gone from circling the edges to positioning myself in the center of the network. I was ready to be part of the larger whole.
In that moment, the network became my referent group, expanding my notion of who qualified as being “like me.” By letting go of self-consciousness, by tolerating the discomfort that risk inevitably stirs, I was able to stand in solidarity with those I had perceived as other. Securing this broader ground through my own efforts enabled me to imagine how I might contribute to the group, and how I might ask for help.
In time, I grew skilled at both.
Thanks for reading All Rise with Sally Helgesen! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.