Vanessa Vallely

How to build an internal network to advance your career


By Samantha White

Building a strong internal network of contacts takes time and effort, but it is key to progression in any organisation. It’s a lesson that Vanessa Vallely is keen to pass on, having learnt it the hard way.

These days, Vallely draws on 25 years’ experience in financial services as an author, mentor, and founder of wearethecity.com, a networking site for professional women in the UK and India. But early in her career, she watched a peer who started with the same job title progress quickly through the ranks, while she remained stuck in the same role.

The only difference between them, she later realised, was that her former peer had built a network within the firm. 

Every time there was an opportunity to attend an internal event, her peer would take it. In contrast, Vallely thought she was too busy for such events and instead opted to focus on getting the job done. Consequently, her network was limited to the people she could see across her floor of the office.

Meanwhile, the network Vallely’s rival (who was also the man she would go on to marry) built turned into internal sponsorship.

Who are your sponsors?

A sponsor is someone who has seen what you have achieved and are capable of and who can champion you, provide connections, and open doors of opportunity for you in other areas of the organisation or beyond. Sponsorship needs to be earnt, because the sponsor puts their reputation on the line when they put you forward for projects based on their belief that you can deliver.

Think about who your sponsors could be, Vallely suggested. These might include managers or colleagues from previous jobs or your current one.

Sponsorship can sometimes grow out of a mentoring arrangement, and mentors form a key part of your network and career progression, Vallely said. They can offer subject-matter expertise and have connections which can lead to opportunities down the road. A mentor gives you one-on-one advice and guidance, while a sponsor advocates for you within your organisation.

“You do need mentors, from different industries, different backgrounds, and different generations, who look at life through a different lens,” she said.

Asking for such help was another lesson Vallely learnt through experience. She believed that her job title meant that she was expected to know it all. But once she began asking more senior people to help her work through each challenging situation, she started to get the advice and support she needed to move forward.

“When you approach a mentor, make sure you have this framework in mind: ‘This is a skill I need to work on. I have identified you as someone who demonstrates this skill all the time. Would you give me 30 minutes of your time to have coffee and work on it once a month for the next three months?’ ”

Create your plan

To identify the skills you need to develop, Vallely recommended mapping out the progress you want to make over the next three years. Professionals should think of themselves as a business unit within their company, she said, and they should ask themselves the following questions: What do the next three years look like? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to help me?

Like any other venture, to succeed in your career, you need a brand and a network.

In this case, your brand involves being able to clearly articulate to others your experience, achievements, and what you want to do. Vallely suggested you prepare and practise a statement of introduction which includes the following elements:

  • I am …
  • My strengths are …
  • I am passionate about …
  • My core values are …
  • I demonstrate this by …

Next, your individual business unit needs a networking plan, which involves listing the people who can help you achieve your goals. First, make a list of your embedded relationships. These are the ones you want to keep warm, Vallely said. Then make an aspirational list of people you want to meet. This might include the head of your division, for example. Drawing up the plan encourages you to think about these relationships and how you are going to meet each person.

In Vallely’s case, her goal was to be a business manager for a CEO, and one of the people in the “aspirational” category was the CEO of her multinational company, who was based overseas. Her opportunity came when the CEO spoke at an external event in London. Vallely attended the event and introduced herself after the presentation.

Samantha White (swhite@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.