Taking Small Steps to Grow Your Network Can Lead to Huge Opportunities

I was trying to think how to start an article about the importance of networking when a coworker challenged me to consider: What would your career be like without it? What has sponsorship meant to you? How would your path have been different—how would Intel be different—without your network? Suddenly I had visions of George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life, watching that poignantly heartbreaking track of what his community would have been like without him. I cannot imagine where I would be without the network of men and women who have encouraged me, challenged me, and lifted me up throughout my career at Intel.

I have held nine different roles at Intel—some of them internships, some part of a rotation program, and four “major” roles of several years each. I can honestly say each of those positions came to be because of my network. Someone raised my awareness to an opportunity, someone recommended me to a hiring manager, someone said, “you did so great at x when we worked together in y, would you consider coming over and working on z in my new group?” People ask me how I made connections and positioned myself for new roles, and I tell them it was far less architected than that. Networking and acquiring sponsorship is about exposing yourself to different people and opportunities, delivering excellence from wherever you are, and being open to trying new things when opportunities arise.

A few tips I offer mentees when they ask how to grow their network are:

Put yourself out there.
It’s highly unlikely someone is going to wander the aisles, seeking a protégé, saying, “Hey! Do you need a sponsor?” Sponsorship is much more organic than that. People have to meet you, get to know you, become familiar with your work. And this doesn’t require working on a complex engineering project together. I have program managed Intel community service projects for childhood cancer and STEM outreach where I grew my skillset—and people saw my capabilities—in business operations, marketing, and stakeholder management. I met phenomenal contacts attending seminars through Intel’s Women at Intel Network (WIN). I even played volleyball in the early 2000’s with co-workers who now run (and engage me in) our Folsom Leadership Team and our Technical Leadership Development programs. All of these connections have made huge impacts on my career visibility and mobility—and they started with simple, peripheral connections.

Accept help (it’s even okay to ask for it).
I was fortunate to learn an important lesson at an early age, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A fiercely independent and capable woman who was always taking care of others found herself in the position of being offered help from others. Church members brought our family meals for weeks while Mom was coping with chemo treatments and raising four kids. While she and my dad could have managed without assistance, the point was: they didn’t have to. The community wanted to help. The same is true at work. We can try to be a superwoman/superman, but do we have to? When someone says, “Let me know how I can help,” take them up on it. Have your eye on a particular role at work? Want a leadership opportunity on a new initiative you see developing? Ask to play a part! You never know what a well-connected referral can do to open doors to new possibilities in your career.

Let your network know who you are and what you’re looking to accomplish.
At Intel, we have a terrific career development course that explores finding your career best fit—that unique intersection of passion, talent, and business opportunity. I tell all my advisees to focus on the first two: what do you know you are passionate about and uniquely good at? What is your superpower? Understand that. Document that. Once you determine your unique strengths and goals, use your network to look for business opportunities where you can bring those skills to fruition. When you’re bringing your best self to work, you’ll perform your best, and that will feed a very positive cycle that propels your career forward.

Be open to possibilities.
My latest role change came about from one of my sponsors texting me while I was on sabbatical. (Sabbatical is a program that rewards employees eight paid weeks off after seven years of service—one of Intel’s most fabulous perks, BTW.) She said our Intel Security Fellow (basically Intel’s highest ranking technical expert in Folsom) needed a Chief of Staff, and that I should apply. I said, “What do I know about cybersecurity?!?” She said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re good at what he needs. You’ll learn the rest.” Trust those who know you and know your strengths, and take a chance on a new opportunity. This role has opened amazing doors and exposed me to people and subjects I never considered. All because someone suggested an opportunity I didn’t know I was looking for.

I know my core strengths and abilities. However, if Intel didn’t have these opportunities—and people—expanding my network, I’m not so sure I’d have experienced the diverse and rewarding career I’ve had so far. I shudder at the thought of working in an environment that didn’t foster mentorship and sponsorship. I am blessed to have engaged with so many fabulous coworkers along my career journey.

Growing and leveraging a network and seeking sponsorship can seem highly daunting. Don’t start with the big leaps. Take small steps. Join one group on campus. Attend one meeting. Schedule a single one-on-one session with a new contact. Identify three things you love to do and are exceptionally good at, and take that everywhere with you. Then let someone know what you’re interested in doing, and follow the path where it takes you.

About Lisa Depew

Lisa Depew is an electrical engineer and works at Intel Corporation, the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. She loves travel, collaboration, and learning and has held roles in processor and memory design, platform validation, processor and chipset technical marketing, business operations, and people- and program-management. She is currently Chief of Staff in the Security Group where Intel drives innovative solutions to the world's digital security challenges. Lisa has been nationally recognized for her excellence in business operations and customer management initiatives and was one of 10 women in the nation to receive the Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) 2013 Emerging Leader Award. She brilliantly balances a fast-paced career and motherhood, speaks locally and nationally supporting youth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), and continually advocates for attracting, retaining, and advancing technical females in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Taking Small Steps to Grow Your Network Can Lead to Huge Opportunities

  1. Hi Lisa – Thank you for your great tips and comments. But I have a question about this: Do you think that all networking is the same? What makes a GOOD networking session?

  2. Great question, David. I would say no, networking is not all the same. It can differ both in what you’re trying to accomplish (e.g. social vs. professional networking) and in the effectiveness of achieving your objective (are you “just talking”, or driving to some meaningful end?). “Good” networking to me (for the person with a goal in mind) is about clarifying your objective and connecting with the right people to help you achieve it. After finding the “right” person to assist in your goal, my recommendation is to start with an opener like, “I’ve spent several years building my skills in X. I’m looking to expand/grow in the area of Y. Do you have any suggestions on how I might accomplish that?” You establish a clear baseline of where you are, articulate where you are trying to go, and give the person the opportunity to engage (or not). The contact can then reply with knowledge (consider reading such-and-such book/article/blog), a name (you should meet so-and-so, I’d be happy to introduce you), or bow out if it’s not an area in which they have (or are comfortable sharing) expertise. You can then determine if this is a connection worth continuing to pursue or whether you should move to the next contact. (Reminder, if someone does help you by making a connection, be sure to follow up quickly with the person you were referred to and thank the reference sincerely for their help.)

  3. Lisa, your point about networking chances and connections happening in an unexpected places is a great one. Most often for me, events that are themed as “networking” turn out to be busts for me. There’s a lot of pressure at those types of events to meet the right people or lots people and it’s not a true quality connection with someone. In a situation that occurs due to common interests or shared activities, it’s more natural to share your story and make genuine and lasting connections with people. Then it’s letting the relationship evolve and grow. Of course, this is a long-term view. Your advice of being clear on what you want to accomplish is well-said and something I need to work on personally.

Comments are closed.