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The importance of building strategic alliances

Recently, I took an online Stanford course named “Women Leaders: Mastering Influence, Authenticity, and Power,” taught by Denise Rabius. This course was full of great learnings and realizations, which the majority of them I am still digesting and may write pieces about later on. This article examines the importance of strategic alliances and the different importance that men and women put on establishing strategic alliances to grow their professional exposure and careers.

Some of you may be thinking: “What? Are you going to tell me to create a professional relationship with someone only to advance my career or get hired? That is so fake!”

The answer is YES and NO. If the above thought resonates with you just a little bit, I encourage you to keep reading.

Per research from The Sponsor Effect, when men and women are asked what is the biggest contributor to their career achievements and growth:

  • 77% of women say that promotions are driven by a combination of hard work, long hours, and education credentials;

  • whereas 83% of men will readily acknowledge that ‘who you know’ counts for a lot, or at least as much as ‘how well you do your job.’

Is our mindset holding us back? How intentional are we, women, at establishing strategic alliances that would allow us to grow and progress? How do our strategic alliances compare to the ones of our male counterparts?

I used to resonate with the 77% of women until I took Denise’s class. Denise made me think about the bigger picture and reflect on my mental models. Is it possible that my mindset is holding me back? I have been walking through life with pride that everything I have done thus far was because of my grit, resilience, and long hours of my work building the expertise and knowledge I needed to create mastery in the specific domain. (To clarify this sentence, I recognize that I have been lucky to be born in the family and place I was born at and met people who taught me valuable lessons. I was privileged to grow up in a world where I had opportunities or was able to create opportunities if I worked hard. I recognize that not everyone has been given this “luck” when being born.)

Because of the mindset that I either need to be better than everyone else or otherwise I don’t deserve opportunities, I have run away from a few. One specific time, there was a very senior person opening a door for me on his team. I accepted this transition and added responsibility with enthusiasm, but shortly after, I started feeling like I don’t belong and I don’t deserve this open door. I felt shame. I thought this opportunity was being “handed” to me and that I didn’t work hard enough to deserve it. How naive! I started thinking to myself:

“What if people started saying, “She got the job because she is a woman” or even worse, “She got the job because she knows the person?”

I started judging myself and felt that I should need to work for things harder. And so I did! I decided to look for an opportunity where I would be forced to start from scratch and prove that I can be great at whatever I choose to put my mind into. I found a new position that checked my criteria, and I took it. The new path has been a fun ride and a great experience, and I proved again that I could be great when I put my effort and energy into something. At the same time, looking back, I wonder if it was the most strategic step.

It is always easier to look back on our lives or business decisions and judge them from the rear mirror view than when we are standing at the intersection and looking ahead to the unknown. I don’t regret the decisions I have made as I find regrets to be useless. One of the most important things in life is to learn from our experiences and iterate on our mental models. I often ask myself:

“By knowing everything I know now and everything I have experienced, how can I optimize my decision making to create a better outcome for myself, my family, my business, my team, my organization…?”

Today, I believe that we cannot achieve true greatness (true greatness defined as a position holding an above-average power and influence) without building strong strategic alliances. Building strategic alliances and sponsorship is essential. It is vital for men and perhaps even more so for women because of the gender gap in top management.

  • Building strategic alliances should be intentional and highly valued as it requires time, skills, effort, and trust.

  • Strategic alliances should be cherished and appreciated.

  • Strategic alliances should NOT BE JUDGED OR TAKEN FOR GRANTED!

We should not judge ourselves for opportunities that are being given to us because of our strategic alliances. Based on the research referenced and my observation in corporate America, men are more likely to use strategic alliances for career progression. Men do this with pride, courage, and a common understanding of how life works. Perhaps there is something to learn here for us, women, if we want to achieve equality of opportunities in the top, typically male-dominated hierarchies.

In a big scheme of things, the world is one big hierarchy organized by many other smaller hierarchies. Hierarchies have been around since the world can remember, and they will not go away anytime soon. Organizational hierarchies have a limited amount of resources and positions of power that drive meaningful impact and influence. Those positions are typically very strategic and require skills but also influence. Often, people are hand-picked for the highly influential positions, and to be considered, we, women, need to be more intentional about building strategic alliances to get an opportunity to compete for the high impact roles.

I am inviting you to do an audit:

  • How strong are your strategic alliances?

  • Is it possible that it may be the key piece you are missing to gain a seat at the table you want to be part of?

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