“Inside every working anarchy is an old boys’ network”

– Mitch Kapor

I’ve loved this quote ever since I first read it in Wired magazine years ago. My interpretation is that even within a society where there isn’t any government or authority, which some would call chaos, there’s an order and some form of an “old boys' network” is alive and well. Even if we don’t all see it, it’s in there.

The “old boys' network” exists in many realms, not just gender, race or politics. It simply occurs when there’s a group that’s the “in” group. As in: in power, in charge, in control, or simply in-the-know about how things work.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean.

Where we’ve lived in the US and the UK, most of the school runs are done by the moms. But since I’ve always worked full time and needed to be at the office by 7:30am, my husband would do the drop-offs and pickups.

It was all going well until that one Wednesday. My husband Len did what he did every Wednesday, which was give Kristen the Brownie scout outfit to put on. That’s because the Brownie troop met every Wednesday afternoon. After breakfast, Len drove Kristen to school and dropped her off at the school gate.

When Kristen walked into the classroom, she was the only girl wearing her Brownie outfit. She hung around the cloakroom for a while, feeling embarrassed but knowing that she had to go into the classroom eventually.

Then – thank goodness! – Olivia walked in, also wearing her Brownie outfit. Lovely, wonderful Brownie outfitted Olivia! She and Kristen ended up walking in together. Crisis averted.

As it turns out, Kristen and Olivia were the only two kids in the class whose fathers did the school run.

What had happened was that the Troop leader had fallen ill the night before and called one of her fellow moms to say, “No Brownie meeting tomorrow,” who then called around to let the other moms know. However, Len and Olivia’s father were not in the mom network and didn’t get the information.

The epilogue is that two of the moms who are also neighbors promised to call the two dads going forward, and Len also made more of an effort to check in and ask what was going on. I rather suspect Kristen also became more independent as a result and started taking responsibility for checking with her classmates! So, not a bad outcome in terms of learning life skills.

It’s not always intentional

Sometimes, the old boys' network is intentionally biased. But often, it can just be lack of awareness that other people don’t have the same perspective, information or resources that we have.

In fact, I’m sure there have been many times when I’ve been so preoccupied that I’ve appeared to exclude or ignore others without intending to. And the more senior you are, the more that can hurt the morale of those around you.

For example, there are times at networking or offsite events when I’ve stayed in the comfort zone of chatting with people I know, and they happen to be other senior MDs. Instead, I should have been talking to the mid and junior level people. We probably looked like the “in” group and made them feel like the “out” group. Not so good.

And when I’m bouncing ideas off of people, I tend to go to the same 3-5 people I know and trust for their judgment. That can look like I’m favoring an “in” group as well, when it’s just simpler and quicker for me.

What can we do?

Here are some things I’m going to do to lessen the impact of the old boys' network phenomenon.

  • Be aware. I’m going to stop being so preoccupied with my own “stuff” and start being more conscious of what’s going on with people around me. As in be more present. Notice who’s feeling left out.
  • Reach out. When I’m part of the “in” group, I’m going to reach out to people who are not. And when I do, it will be to help them decipher what’s going on, decode the secret language, and feel included in the natural flow of information. That’s what two of the moms did at Kristen’s school. It’s a small shift in behavior to add one more person to your list of where you care, but it can have a hugely positive impact.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt. And when it feels like I’m on the outside of the network, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and approach it as the non-sinister version. That way, I’ll be able to reach out to them rather than having it feel like I’m back in high school with my lunch tray walking by the “cool kids’ table” and wondering where to sit.

So, now that we’re all grown up, why not make room for the new kid at our lunch table and start building bridges from both sides? I think it can make us all more successful.

What do you think? What will you do when you’re in the old boys' network and when you’re on the outside looking in?