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Asking the Questions that Matter: Sponsoring an Employee Network Group

Amy Slater

Amy and her “grandpuppy,” Tucker.

Career development has been a passion of mine and an important part of my career since long before I joined Palo Alto Networks three years ago. So, it was a fortunate coincidence that I was asked, within two months of coming to work here, to step in as an executive sponsor for the company’s Early in Career Employee Network Group (ENG).

In fact, the opportunity landed on my lap — my colleague, who was the sponsor at the time, was unable to attend the group’s meet and greet and asked if I could take his place at the event. Soon afterward, he realized that his schedule didn’t really allow him to continue as a sponsor, and it made good sense for me to take on that role. After all, it was congruent with my position at the company, which at the time was Vice President of Corporate Sales — a role that, among other things, involved bringing on new talent through LEAP, the company’s early-in-career recruitment and training program.

The Early in Career ENG plays an important part in helping employees who are just starting out in their careers to make connections, seek advice, share concerns or frustrations, and develop their skills. It doesn’t necessarily mean its members have to be fresh out of college — some have been working for many years but are just starting out in cybersecurity. Issues that crop up for members include such things as establishing work-life balance, navigating finances, finding answers to work-related questions, strengthening time-management skills, identifying mentors, finding training opportunities, building professional and personal confidence, forming friendships, and finding their voice. Events range from book clubs to speaker sessions, educational presentations, training webinars, the occasional virtual happy hour, and much more.

The year 2020 has presented additional challenges, including isolation — many are recent grads and single, living alone — or feelings of disconnectedness from peers. Socials and meet-and-greet events are often a lifeline for those starting out in their careers, and with those opportunities taken off the table due to the pandemic, finding alternative ways to connect and network is essential in helping these employees stay engaged. For those fresh out of college or new to full-time employment, basic infrastructure, such as desks or designated work areas, is lacking, which adds to the difficulty of working from home. The support, advice, and connection this ENG provides are especially valuable to this group of employees, who appreciate being able to share their experiences with others who “get it.”

Being an executive sponsor doesn’t make me a leader, but rather a sounding board, advocate, cheerleader, and advisor. All the various ENG groups at Palo Alto Networks develop programs and events that are intended to be meaningful to constituent members and drive visibility across the organization. This involves considerable planning and budgeting, which I participate in. Because of my background, I can assist them in building their personal brands and bring vision to the group. I can also help spread the word about issues or concerns facing these employees or opportunities for others in the organization to participate in events or be more inclusive of early-in-career employees.

I also see raising questions as an important part of my role — questions related to what outcomes they’re seeking and how they can achieve them. I see it as the executive sponsor’s responsibility to raise questions they didn’t think to consider, to tease out their thinking and help them come up with solutions.

We all remember our first or second job, and we remember the people who were there to help lift us off. That’s why the Early in Career ENG — as well as the many ENGs we have here at Palo Alto Networks — is so important. It offers a sense of belonging as well as opportunities to both lead and follow, growing their confidence as they do. I avidly study social psychology, and one person known in this space, Brené Brown, once wrote, “We’re hardwired for connection.” Without connection in a company as large as ours, a person can easily get lost. An ENG creates a community where a person can feel safe and understood, and in turn, it helps them to feel more closely tied to the company. It not only benefits the individual but as a result, the company enjoys less turnover and happier, more productive, more engaged employees.

A company always has to be cautious that it doesn’t become exclusive in its efforts to be inclusive. That’s why an ENG is valuable for every employee, whatever affinity group we identify with. Participating in an ENG, even if you aren’t early in your career, offers a window into the issues facing those employees, as well as a deeper understanding of their ideas and perspectives, which can aid in innovation as well as recruitment and retention efforts. We’re never too experienced to learn from others which is why establishing and sponsoring ENG groups is a worthwhile investment.

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