02/02/2011 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Working Women: How to Play the 'Who You Know' Game

In my research, I have found that today's high-achieving women are confident in their abilities and not worried about anyone discovering that they are frauds as research in previous years described working women. Today's ambitious women know they are smart and capable, and they love getting new challenges that maximize their skills.

One of the side effects of being brought up to be a strong, smart women is the difficulty women have asking for help. They not only want to prove they can do things on their own, but also don't want anyone thinking they are inadequate.

Men seem to know instinctively the value of building collegial networks, both in and out of the workplace. There is power in numbers. Getting ahead based on "who you know" is the way of the world.

Women typically loathe this show of politics. Their resentment builds as they are passed over for promotions and projects because they don't play the game. These women can complain all they want about gender inequality, but they feed the problem with their view that building an "insider's network" is bad politics and their fear of looking weak by asking for help.

It's time women redefine what "playing politics" means. In a study cited in The Real Benefit of Finding a Sponsor by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy), researchers found that choosing wisely "who you know" is essential to getting ahead in the corporate world:

What's been holding women back isn't a male conspiracy, but rather a surprising absence of advocacy from men and women in positions of power. Women who are qualified to lead simply don't have the powerful backing necessary to inspire, propel and protect themselves on their journey through upper management. Women lack, in a word, sponsorship.

Sponsors not only act as advocates for their protégés, making connections and campaigning for them in their organization. Women who work with sponsors also have learned the benefits of tooting their own horns. The study found that women with sponsors are more likely to ask their managers for stretch assignments and raises. It appears that having a higher-up believe in you increases your confidence and organizational wisdom.

So, the fear that people will think you are weak or manipulative if you ask for help is unfounded. In truth, you are smart and strong if you ask for help.

There's another fear that stops women from leveraging the "who you know" chip: the fear of other women.

Hewitt's article says women worry that if they ask a male to sponsor them, others will think it's a sexual relationship. In my experience coaching female executives, most have no problem asking men to be their mentors (sponsorship is a fairly new concept we are working on). They aren't concerned about gossip. They worry more that women will not work hard enough for them, or worse -- sabotage their growth.

Women sabotaging women is one of the worst lies that is perpetuated in corporate America. Do some women dislike other women? Yes, as some men don't care for other men. If given the chance, most senior women these days jump at the chance to help develop and promote other women. I spoke with Lauren Klein, Chief Community Officer for Executive Networks, about this reality. She said:

We have many internal networks join in on the conversations in our broader network of executives who show up to talk about workforce topics. The women consistently attend and share valuable knowledge and experiences. What's more, they appear to genuinely enjoy checking in with each other for support, advice and all-around camaraderie. Perhaps it's time to put the myth of "women undermining other women" to rest, once and for all.

Recently, in our Executive Networks' Global Diversity & Inclusion Network, we discussed women and succession planning. According to Mary Farmer, the executive director of the network, "The genuine willingness to share valuable information, without self-interest, is something I've encountered frequently in both internal communities and external networks of professional women. I don't see evidence of women undermining each other. My experience is just the opposite; women can and do join forces to create positive change and facilitate gender balance in today's high-performing companies."

I have advocated before for women to create their Positive Conspiracies of Change in organizations. Women need sponsors and they need to come together in supportive networks. There is no shame in asking for help. It is the way we will finally get more seats in the boardroom and our career desires met.

It's time we play the "who you know" game, too.


Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., author of "Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction," is president of Covisioning, a leadership coaching and training organization working with a variety of people and organizations around the world to increase emotional intelligence and collaboration.