March 30, 2018 | Point of View

The “silent” challenge of creating equal networking opportunities

As part of a journey to strengthen our culture of inclusion, we began writing quarterly editorials last year designed to stimulate conversation about relevant and sometimes challenging topics. The idea is that healthy and open dialogue is an essential prerequisite to breaking down the barriers to inclusion. We are energized by the feedback to date, and are excited to continue this conversation into a second year 

To  kick off this year’s series, I’d  like to comment on   an article I recently read on the website of one of our partners, the Ellevate Network: “Sheryl Sandberg Just Nailed a Subtle Way Men Hold Women’s Careers Back.” 

The article reflects on how men can feel uncomfortable spending one-on-one time with the women with whom they work. As a result, they avoid dinners and other out-of-work events with women, thus limiting important networking (and presumably many other learning) opportunities for women at work. That struck a chord with me. As a leader in our firm, I spend as many as 12 hours a day working with people and building relationships with colleagues. 

In consulting, and especially here at West Monroe, doing great work is not enough. Our success depends on teams, not individuals. Relationships matter and are vitally important to one’s career success. That’s not to say you need to be a part of a “club” to be successful, but rather a reason we encourage and build relationship development into our workplace. For better or worse, with our extensive travel requirements and long working hours, it is inevitable that some essential relationship building activities will take place outside of normal working hours—whether that’s a breakfast meeting or a family picnic with coworkers after one of our quarterly meetings. 

However, as much as I believe in the importance of mentoring and networking, I also understand it doesn’t always feel comfortable—and typically that’s related to the activity itself more than the people participating in the activity. Dinners between male and female colleagues are an oft-cited example, but gatherings at bars can be uncomfortable for those who don’t drink, or large group outings can be difficult for introverts. 

We have heard from our people that they believe there is a distinct correlation between how “well-networked” they are and how strongly others advocate for their careers. While we have established checks and balances in our system of meritocracy to make sure we progress and promote people fairly, we recognize that if there is a perception of inequality, then there is an issue. 

As leaders, it is our responsibility to address it. More specifically, it is our responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to  be successful, and that means making sure everyone has equal opportunities to develop and nurture strong professional relationships both in and outside of the workplace. 

If we act in a professional manner and treat everyone with respect, networking in any situation shouldn’t be a problem. We need to recognize that not everyone is comfortable with every activity or situation, and the current social climate has perhaps cast an additional layer of caution and discomfort with out-of-work interactions. However, we cannot let some people’s bad behavior discourage us from doing what’s right. 

The article’s author poses three questions to ask yourself to make sure you are acting in an inclusive manner that creates equal mentoring and networking opportunities for all. 

  1. Is this an activity I can do with everyone? If not, then plan something different. 
  2. Who haven’t I spent time with, and why? Determine the steps you need to fix that.
  3. What can I do to be better? Ask yourself, but also ask your colleagues. 

My reaction to these is mixed. I disagree at some level with the first point. I think that in our world, good, long lasting relationships are borne out of unique situations and opportunities. What is comfortable for one colleague may not be for another. We need to be thoughtful about making sure  we  as  leaders  find a situation or opportunity that is right for each individual. If we try to find one setting that is “right” for everyone, we will fail. 

Rather, we need to give everyone a chance to build relationships in a comfortable way, and that leads to the second question, with which I do agree wholeheartedly. As leaders, and probably as importantly, as owners in our firm, we will do better work internally and for our clients by ensuring we know as many of our co-workers as possible, across all our practices and geographic markets. While it takes time, focusing on relationships with our colleagues up, down and across the organization so that we can best address our client needs is a non-negotiable. 

Finally, the third question is always relevant, not just to this situation. It is never a bad idea to ask for feedback. 

I would also add a fourth strategy, and that’s to ensure networking and mentoring relationships are viewed as a partnership within the organization. Mentorship is not a single thread—it benefits both people involved, and if we create a culture where everyone is getting value from relationship-building, we’re more likely to find ways to make these opportunities work. 

The one thing in the article with which I agree more than anything is this: creating an environment where all colleagues feel they have an equal chance to develop professional relationships is a challenge, particularly in this day and age. It is also largely a “silent” challenge, and one we won’t start to fix unless we are open to talking about it—which is what I hope this letter stimulates. To start the conversation, I’ve invited Kelsey Braak, a member of our Inclusion and Diversity Committee, to contribute her personal perspective on this challenge and how she thinks it should be addressed. We all have a role to play and important input to provide when it comes to building   a more inclusive environment at West Monroe.

Strengthening our culture of inclusion is a team effort, and we want to share additional perspectives from across our team. This year, we are inviting both West Monroe employees and outside partners and clients to join the conversation. This quarter’s contribution comes from Kelsey Braak, a manager in our Operations Excellence practice, based in Minneapolis. She is also a member of our recently formed Inclusion & Diversity Advisory Council.

Kelsey Braak, Manager 

What was your reaction to the Ellevate article about equality of after-hours networking opportunities? 

I agree with the points Sheryl Sandberg makes on the impact of relationships over the course of one's career— including its influence on progression. When a new opportunity comes up, of course the boss is going to think of those they know best first. And when the boss has stronger relationships with some but not all, it can result in a perception of favoritism or inequality. 

Consulting puts people in a challenging position because of the way we work. Many of us are on the road with colleagues every week, going out to dinners and staying in hotels. All that additional time spent together lends itself to developing personal relationships, but it is easy to fear that someone could perceive these relationships to be inappropriate. The #metoo movement has sharpened everyone’s sensitivity. It has challenged men to rethink some of their behaviors and interactions with women, which is good, but it is increasing the instances where men are hesitant in their relationships with female coworkers. Sandberg’s recommended actions are great first steps for men concerned with these challenges. I especially like the question Sandberg suggests, “Who haven’t I spent time with?” Male and female leaders alike should ask themselves this question, as there could be other forms of bias in play that unconsciously impact relationships. 

How do you think we can begin addressing this challenge? 

It is important to acknowledge that there are gender challenges in the workplace and that activities after hours can amplify these challenges. While we can’t control the judgments of others, we can and should have open dialogue so that all parties understand the sensitivities and, more importantly, that it is okay to talk about it. I think a good starting point for this kind of discussion is to set clear expectations around what traveling and being on the road with co-workers looks and feels like. Talking about expectations around what happens outside of work goes a long way toward creating a more inclusive environment. 

We also have to make sure people feel it is “okay” to ask our leaders for networking time in and outside the office. I do think many women have a harder time than their male colleagues in asking for that time—particularly from male leaders. Leaders need to reinforce that everyone has “permission” to ask and are encouraged to ask for that time. Recently a few male leaders in the Minneapolis office accompanied a group of women to a Women in Business event, which was both a wonderful show of support as well as a great opportunity to spend time with our leaders. 

At West Monroe, one of the expectations of being part of our company is that we aren’t just here to work; we have a responsibility to contribute to the culture. We prioritize development of personal and professional relationships, and that is one of the things I value most about working here. 

What has your team done to foster inclusivity? 

I am part of a client service team that travels every week to our client site out of state. A key reason we have developed such great relationships across levels, genders, and specialties within our team is the amount of time we spend traveling together. For example, there is a group from Chicago that commutes three to four hours by car, each way, every week. It is impossible to talk about work for all of that time, so that has provided a great opportunity for them to get to know one another. For me, coming from Minneapolis, the time we spend outside of work has been very important for bonding with people from other locations. We make it a priority to organize different types of out-of-office activities, from sporting events   to volunteer activities, so that everyone feels included and comfortable. It has been fun to try new things that are special to the people involved. 

We also make sure our weekly team meeting agenda allows time for “Around the Horn.” Each team member provides a professional and personal update to the team. This West Monroe ritual is an easy way our team makes it clear to one another that we care about each other, professionally and personally. 

Tell us a little about what you are doing with the Inclusion & Diversity Council. 

The I&D Council formed in late 2017. It has committees focused on engaging the organization through three lenses: head, heart, and hands. I am a chair for the Heart Committee, which is looking at what connects people to our organization at an emotional level. One of our first big initiatives is an I&D vision video that features people from all offices and levels reading the vision and sharing stories to generate excitement and demonstrate the firm-wide commitment to our culture of inclusion. 

The Head Committee focuses on the business case and the benefit of various initiatives to West Monroe and our communities. The Hands Committee is responsible for engaging employees through actions such as training and events. 

Collectively, one of our biggest priorities is to increase conversation about inclusion and diversity in our workplace. Everyone brings their professional aspirations to work, but we also want them to feel safe sharing personal perspectives and when talking about challenging topics. This starts with conversation. The more we “practice” the dialogue, the more it will help when a moment of conflict or discomfort comes up. For example, if a team often networks at happy hour but one member doesn’t consume alcohol, then that person should feel comfortable speaking up and suggesting an alternative activity. This promotes inclusivity, which in turn helps us attract people of diverse backgrounds that we want and need in our organization. 

Ready to get started? Explore opportunities at West Monroe.