Building Alliances on the Job

A finance executive explains how the only way to advance your career is with a well-cultivated network

Name: Valerie Rainford

Title: Managing Director and Business Support Executive, JPMorgan Chase Home Lending

Location: New York

Age: 46

Power Play: Manages more than 900 employees in 14 business units that provide a variety of support services within the firm’s residential mortgage business, including production quality, training, operational risk, and technology delivery

Why is winning alliances in an organization critical?
Strong alliances can be career differentiators for strong performers. A strong performer without the alliances will go unnoticed. In a big firm like JPMorgan Chase, the way to distinguish yourself is around performance first and the ability to make relationships second. If there were two equally qualified individuals being considered for an assignment, the person who’s seen as a relationship builder is going to win the assignment every time.

Why is it important for key players to be aware of the talent in an organization?
The leader who has a critical assignment for an aggressive deadline is going to look around for the person that he or she trusts to get the job done. The opportunity [to leverage a relationship] is very often created during a problem or rough situation. The key is to demonstrate strong performance in a business-as-usual situation so that you can be the go-to person in the not-so-usual situation.

How did you position yourself to gain key leadership roles within your organization?
Strong leaders will not place their support behind mediocre performers or people with questionable backgrounds. I always start from a position of strong performance and act with strength and integrity. Those personal values have been the cornerstone of my career and have opened doors for me along the way. I was recruited to the firm based on that reputation of strong performance, excellent work ethic, and unquestionable integrity. That is my brand inside and outside of JPMorgan Chase. Although I began my career unsure of what I wanted to do, I positioned myself as a strong versatile performer early on. My success has come through doing different things, gaining a number of different experiences, and bringing my reputation to whatever it was no matter what I was doing or where. Also, how you build relationships is as important as which relationships you build. It is important to get to know people outside your normal circle. Others across different disciplines and diverse constituencies will help you broaden your perspective.

What’s the best way to develop and sustain these key relationships?

The key to networking is not to work an entire room at work or at play but to cultivate and nurture a few bilateral partnerships. Relationships should be worked continually. Make yourself a resource to others such that those same individuals will be a resource for you when you need them. So often folks come to me to establish a relationship when they’re in crisis. It is easier to help someone you are already connected to. I make it a point to schedule a lunch at least once a week with someone in my internal or external network. Doing that refreshes me, it’s a break from work, and it allows me the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences with others. Another thing that I do when my schedule is crazy is drop an impromptu e-mail to a friend or a colleague to let them know that I’m thinking about them. You have to be creative about how to stay connected with people who are important to your life and career.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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