• Laura Hay, Leadership |

Many times when I meet successful women, I’m amazed by the twisting path they took to get to their current leadership role, often in areas far from their original studies or first steps into the workforce. 

That’s the case with Sapna Shah, who is Executive Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Southern California-based PIMCO, a premier fixed income investment manager. During our recent conversation, Sapna told me that she never expected that her first job would lead her into diversity and inclusion, philanthropy and social responsibility. After all, she studied finance and started out in equity research before she began working with institutional clients to help oversee their retirement and balance sheet cash assets.

When I asked Sapna how she charted such a zig-zagging path from Point A to Point B, she told me that networking played a critical role - even though she felt uncomfortable doing it - and she had to find her own approach, to make it work for her.

Since I know that women are often uncomfortable putting on their networking hat, I asked Sapna how she became adept at it. In response, Sapna admitted that, “At first, I didn’t get the importance of networking, and it’s not my personality at all. However, I wanted to be part of a higher purpose, and, as an institutional account manager who wants to do the best thing for a client, that meant meeting as many co-workers as I could to find effective solutions.” 

She explains that, to do so, she began inviting colleagues for coffee, to discuss how they could collaborate for mutual benefit and better client outcomes. She also credits her manager, who approved her request to work from other offices, so she could meet other teams and satisfy her personal curiosity for travel.

Sapna emphasized to me that, “I never started networking because I thought it would be good for my career. I did it to help me do a better job for clients. However, I was tapped by management for many opportunities because I had a broader network than colleagues who didn’t get that exposure to different individuals.”

But how can other women get started networking when it seems uncomfortable? Calling herself an ‘introvert,’ Sapna offers simple tips that helped her: “Don’t think of it as something you’re doing just to benefit yourself but think in terms of wanting to create value for the organization or others, because there is real value when these relationships develop.”

She adds that, to make networking feel more natural, remember that it can be an information exchange that is actually a two-way street: “Be confident that you have the ability to share perspectives or ideas that will benefit the other person.” Finally, Sapna adds that, “Don’t think of it as work: Consider it a nice opportunity to get to know another person like you who can share their life experiences.”

Sapna also offers pointers to complement an individual’s career trajectory:

Keep a long-term perspective: Your career will have daily ups and downs, so don’t get hung up on short-term setbacks.

Don’t be afraid to be direct: Have direct, respectful conversations to clarify misunderstandings or nip issues in the bud with colleagues.

Show you care about your team and organization: Support your colleagues and find ways to add value above and beyond your role.

Build support networks in your industry: This helps you gain objective perspectives beyond your own organization to help you manage your own challenges.

For me, Sapna’s comments really resonate when I think of women who tell me they find networking difficult. Sapna pushed herself into networking to fulfil her own bigger-than-herself goals. And, she found a way to network that matches her own style. 

It shows that we can each beat difficult challenges if we recognize and apply our own individual strengths. Women can tap into their desire to learn about others and take pleasure in the journey. We can choose to have fun networking, rather than fear it.  As Sapna discovered, you might even forget you’re networking while you’re busy helping others, helping your organization or working towards your higher purpose.

More about Sapna Shah: Sapna is an Executive Vice President and a member of PIMCO's executive office as the firm’s Head of Corporate Responsibility. She oversees PIMCO’s global initiatives aimed at cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace as well as PIMCO’s corporate philanthropy platform. Sapna is also a member of the core leadership team for PIMCO’s global sustainability initiative.

She was previously a senior member of the US corporate practice and has worked with many different institutional clients. Prior to joining PIMCO in 2007, she was with the equity research group of a global asset manager as well as the finance department of a microfinance firm. She has 16 years of investment experience and holds an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago.