IN 2015, I WAS selected for the “leadership pipeline program” at the major bank where I worked. It was a 10-month-long program for minority employees just below executive level. We were selected to learn all about corporate culture and what it took to advance to the next level. I felt honored to be among such talented and promising employees.
Participants were from various departments from across the U.S.—technology, risk management, operations, compliance, human resources, retail banking, commercial lending and investments. The program opened with a one-week in-person training session at the bank’s corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, followed by monthly meetings via video conferencing and online courses. Each participant was assigned a mentor from the executive level. The people I met in the program were diverse in terms of experience, education and age. We were all united, however, in wanting to learn the skills necessary to move up the corporate ladder.
Rather than particular job skills, however, a major emphasis of the program was networking. “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Over and over, making the right connections was emphasized. The bank encouraged us to join multiple affinity groups (Asian, veteran, Latino, Native American, women, LGBT, African American and so on), to socialize and connect across divisions and departments, and to reach out to executives. In other words, we needed to promote ourselves if we wanted to move up to the next level.
The emphasis on self-promotion as a career strategy never quite sat right with me. Partly, it’s because I’m an introvert. But mostly, I saw a problem with focusing so much on building a network. I always thought that the time and energy spent maintaining these relationships and joining the many affinity groups would, instead, be better spent learning new skills.
And there’s a big reason I felt that way: In 2007, I saw my then-employer, Countrywide, collapse. It was a turbulent and stressful time for the mortgage industry—and the financial reverberations would soon be felt across the globe. As my old company dissolved and we were integrated into a new one, I saw plenty of managers, colleagues and executives let go.
All the people retained by the company had one thing in common: They were knowledgeable, hardworking and competent at their jobs. It was the employees who had valuable skills in coding and manipulating large data sets. It was the employees who knew the operating systems so well that they could fix any problem in their sleep. I had one of these unglamorous positions—and it’s why I kept my job.
By contrast, the people let go were mostly middle and upper level managers—the people who oversaw others, but didn’t do the work themselves. I had seen so many of these managers focus heavily on networking. I witnessed them claiming the work of the people below them as their own, believing that’s what they needed to do to get ahead. They believed their web of executive contacts would support them, only to find themselves abandoned by those same tenuous connections. In lean times, everything and everyone is under scrutiny. What an institution needs is people who can keep the company going, not keep themselves connected.
The Great Recession taught me an important lesson: You need to put skills, knowledge and competency first, ahead of self-promotion and networking. The order can’t be reversed.
Jiab Wasserman recently left from her job as a financial analyst at a large bank at age 53. She’s now semi-retired. Her previous articles include Living Small, This Old House and The Gift of Life. Jiab and her husband, who also writes for HumbleDollar, currently live in Granada, Spain. They blog about downshifting, personal finance and other aspects of retirement—as well as about their experience relocating to another country—at YourThirdLife.com.