I listen to a lot of senior and successful people talking about their careers. What’s interesting is the number of times I hear them talk about a point when they were given a great opportunity and they will often refer to this as “luck”. I don’t think that it is luck most of the time, so when I was invited to talk to the University of Glasgow Women in Research Network (WIRN), I decided to make this my theme.

(Although I was asked to run a networking workshop, adding the twist of looking at networks as generators of luck worked really well…)

LUCK the slides from the session

We started with a reflection and discussion about what it would look like for everyone if they were more lucky. I didn’t ask people to share their individual ideas but as I moved around I heard people talking about things like grant income, permanent positions and being able to pursue particular research ideas. For me I feel lucky if I get to do really interesting work. The chance to talk to the WIRN was one I welcomed and the kind of work I’d like to do more of, so I used this to explain the principles of the session.

  1. the opportunity came through my network. Someone suggested my name to the WIRN organisers (still not sure who, but thank you)
  2. it was fairly clear to the people in my network that I’m interested and active in the development of women and promotion of diversity, so by being open about these values and demonstrating them, I looked like a good match
  3. I’m visible online so it’s easy to dig a little deeper to see if the recommendation is backed up by evidence I’ll be able to do a good job
  4. I said YES when approached, even though I was a little overwhelmed when I heard who the previous speakers were and even though it was in a week when another day away created some challenges

We looked into these ideas throughout the workshop, occasionally referring to some of the books that I’d brought with me. As someone said, they are the kind of books you see in airport lounges (in fact one was bought in an airport lounge) but they all contain as least one idea which linked to the central theme of the day.

Once everyone had spent a bit of time thinking about what luck would look like for them, I introduced the first idea – taken from Stephen Covey’s book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“. Based on interviews and observations with leaders in a range of sectors, the book identifies and explains a number of behaviours and approaches that were evident again and again. We looked at the first habit – being proactive – which means (in very simple terms) that you put your energy and time into what you CAN change rather than complaining about what you can’t. Covey observed that proactive people tend to see their networks and colleagues working to support them, thus creating a “circle of influence”.

Next we looked at the networks of the women in the room. I mentioned my second book, with a slightly off-putting title, but definitely worth a read. “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois Frankel is a list of mistakes that women might make in their careers, with advice on how to avoid these. I chose mistake 13 which is Failing to Capitalise on Relationships. You can read a summary of the book on Ms Career Girl. With our networks in mind we thought about who around us might be able to celebrate our successes and provide opportunities (more categories in the slides).

Next, we thought about where and how networks grow. If the previous discussion made you realise that there were gaps in your network, this is the point at which we thought about solutions. There were many ideas including

  • professional bodies and learned societies
  • conferences – but using them properly to talk to people and connect (business card treasure hunts for example)
  • social media – twitter users in the room were particular positive, as were those who were using the research networks – ResearchGate and Academia – to connect with people. My blog post on your first ten follows might help the uninitiated get started.
  • travelling and visiting other groups and researchers to build strong connections
  • asking questions at conferences (a favourite theme of mine and Athene Donald) and approaching speakers to be more VISIBLE
  • mentoring as well as having a mentor
  • moving institutions
  • volunteering for workshop groups or panels and accepting invitations for the same
  • socialising
  • asking for help
  • being open about your plans
  • using your colleagues and students to network for you at events you can’t attend
  • using grants as a hook to connect with people
  • Scottish Crucible
  • inviting people to Glasgow to speak

Mentoring is a big topic in equality and diversity, but something that I find isn’t flexible enough for my way of working. Instead of a mentor I have a “board of directors” who advise me on a range of topics. They never meet (!) but I find it easier to ask a few people very specific advice, rather than one person a lot. This idea is expressed nicely in the “airport book” It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor by Rebecca Shambaugh.

We finished by thinking about what we needed to share with our networks so they could help build our luck. I used a phrase (which instantly demonstrated a career history which included time in Newcastle) “Shy Bairns Get Nowt” so people talked about what their networks needed to know about them. In doing this I suggested that people focus these ideas on the aspects of their achievements and ambitions which they cared the most about. I mentioned Do More Great Work by Michael Bungay Stanier which includes a series of career “maps”, including the I Care, They Care one I mentioned (map 7).

My final book was perhaps the most surprising one in the “library”: Animal by Sara Pascoe. Best known as a comedian, I had just seen Sara talk about the book at the Borders Book Festival and been completely disarmed by how thoughtful and interesting she was when talking about her “autobiography of the female body”. One thing she said struck me in particular – that we have evolved to avoid problems by remembering them and those of us who are best at avoiding and learning from difficulties are the ones who survived. She said that “80% of our memories are negative because that helps us to survive”. I’m not sure of the origin of this figure, (she lists some sources and articles) but it’s worth remembering the general idea – we tend to focus on the negative but it shouldn’t stop us trying new things, taking risks and being courageous.

I wrapped up with ten final thoughts about being more lucky with your network and in your career:

Do As You Would Be Done By using one of the original illustrations from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Treat people as you would like to be treated and offer the support to those around/more junior that you would like to receive.

Step outside your comfort zone/take risks remembering that it will feel difficult, you’ll probably experience imposter syndrome and you’ll have many reasons not you – but you must anyway.

Do what you love – otherwise what’s the point?

Put your ideas and ambitions out there – so people know what you want and may be able to help you get it.

Avoid the dementors… try to stay away from negative people, or at least surround yourself with as many positive people as you can to reduce their impact. (I wrote about the power of positive people years ago and I still believe it.)

Be a positive person  – I think that being positive and proactive makes people more likely to support you. I’ve heard more than one senior academic talk about how much they value the “can do” people around them.

Look for opportunities and recognise that they are often the diamonds in the ore – opportunities tend to mean hard work, but bring rewards.

Make a plan – to help you focus and decide on priorities (and include others to keep you motivated)

But sometimes deviate from your usual path  – the solutions to your problems or challenges probably lie outside your current experience and habits.

Benchmark yourself and get feedback –  be aware of where you are in your career and whether you are on track. Once you ask for feedback, act on it or explain why you aren’t – again, you are more likely to get help and opportunities if people feel you take notice of advice.

Thanks to all the women who came to the workshop – it was a huge pleasure to meet you all.

In putting my ideas together I read a fair few things on the theme of luck. Here’s the list which I’ll edit and add to as I find more.








Finally, although  wasn’t able to be in the audience, his doodled summaries of previous talks to WIRN (and many others) are really effective.