136: Network Beyond Bias – How to Make Diversity Your Competitive Advantage in Networking with Amy Waninger

Ep136 Amy Waninger Network beyond Bias TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

It’s very common for our professional networks to gravitate primarily toward others in our own industry, culture, and even race. This lack of diversity, however, can be a huge missed opportunity for us. On this episode of The TalentGrow Show, author, speaker and consultant Amy Waninger joins me to talk about the importance of a diverse, inclusive approach to networking. Listen to learn why you may be operating from an unconscious bias when you network, how to get beyond it, and what you can do to make diversity a competitive advantage in your career. Plus, find out one thing you should be doing every time you receive an invitation to connect on LinkedIn! If you want to upgrade your networking skills -- both in-person and on social media -- be sure to give this episode a listen, and share it with others in your network.


Amy C. Waninger works with organizations that want to build diverse leadership pipelines. She is the author of Network Beyond Bias: Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career and Network Like a CHAMP Networking Activity Journal.

Amy is a Professional Member of National Speakers Association and a Prosci Certified Change Practitioner. Her other credentials include two degrees from Indiana University and a World’s Best Mom coffee mug.


  • Amy describes what made her change her approach to networking and decide to start writing and speaking about it (3:42)

  • How Amy’s work can and has impacted people’s lives (8:25)

  • We miss out on powerful networking opportunities when we don’t have an inclusive and diverse approach (9:50)

  • Things you should pay attention to if you want to become more inclusive and diverse in your approach to networking (10:22)

  • Amy shares an example of how she expanded her own networking horizons (10:55)

  • Amy explains the meaning behind the subtitle of her book, and shares more examples of how you can get value from diversifying your networking (13:21)

  • What is “unconscious bias,” what is wrong with it, and how do we get rid of it? (16:33)

  • Amy elaborates on what she calls “pressing your pause button” (19:21)

  • Halelly elaborates on how changing your perspective in networking to one of curiosity can be a huge value (20:11)

  • Looking at networking as a skill like any other (21:14)

  • Halelly puts in her own words why we have a tendency towards an unconscious bias (21:55)

  • What’s new and exciting on Amy’s horizon? (24:27)

  • One specific action you can take to upgrade your networking skills (25:08)



Episode 136 Amy Waninger

TEASER CLIP: Amy: What happens over time is we don’t even realize we’re making a choice anymore. All of these preferences that we have, then, become sort of unconscious, because they’re not registering anymore in our brains. Our brains just can’t process that much information, so we discard a lot of information. More than 99 percent of the information that we take in actually makes it to the processing part of our brain. And so you ask, “How do we get rid of this?” And the answer is we can’t get rid of it. What we can do, though, is get beyond it. We can recognize that we’re doing it, we can recognize that we have these default patterns of behavior, of forming relationships, of putting ourselves in certain experiences, and then we can notice what those patterns are and notice when we’re being challenged or when we’re uncomfortable and explore why are we uncomfortable? We can observe what the people around us are doing differently, and imagine what are the experiences or identifies or values that they’re seeking to protect or that they brought into this situation that are different?

[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: Hey, hey, welcome back TalentGrowers, to another episode of the TalentGrow Show. This is Halelly Azulay, I’m your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow and this week my guest is Amy Waninger, who is going to talk to you about how you can diversify your network and change how you go about networking to improve the results you see in your career. I just want to make a quick disclaimer about the sound quality – if this is the first time you’re listening to my show or you’re new to the show, then you may not know that this is not going to be an example of how it typically sounds. For some reason, right now you’re hearing what my usual sound is in this intro, but for the conversation with Amy, for some reason, my microphone, my blue Yeti was not picking up my voice, and it was getting picked up directly from the laptop, so the audio quality is not terrible, but it isn’t as perfect as I usually like to have it. I hope that you will give me a pass on this one and recognize that it isn’t perfect, but it is pretty good, and listen anyway. There’s lots of great nuggets in this one for you to hear. Here we go.

Okay TalentGrowers. Today we have on the show Amy Waninger. She works with organizations that want to build diverse leadership pipelines. She’s the author of Networking Beyond Bias, making diversity a competitive advantage for your career, and Network Like a Champ, networking activity journal. Amy is a professional member of the National Speaker’s Association and a Prosci certified change practitioner. Her other credentials include two degrees from Indiana University and a World’s Best Mom coffee mug. I love that. Amy, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.

Amy: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Halelly: I’m glad that you’re here, and before we start talking about the topics of your books, networking, which everyone who listens to the TalentGrow Show knows I love talking about networking, I want to introduce you and your professional journey, briefly. Where did you start and how did you end up where you are today?

Amy: I’ll try to keep it brief. I actually started my career as an IT professional, a software developer, in 2000. I’ve worked the last almost 20 years now in information technology and the last little more than a decade in the insurance industry, in particular, and rose through the management ranks and a Fortune 100 company. About two years ago I attended a conference and I wanted to give something back to the organization that held the conference. The presentation that I submitted for the following year was accepted. I had about two bullet points and just a few sentences about what I wanted to talk about, and then I had to put together a whole hour once they accepted my proposal. So as I was building out the content for that, I came up with a framework that would help people understand if they were networking effectively, across different and deeply and broadly within their industries. And when I took my own assessment and got the results, I didn’t like it at all, what I got back. I changed. I changed from just having my heart in the right place – I felt like – to actually moving my feet and putting my feet in the right place as well. I changed how I approached networking. I changed who I mentored, who I asked to mentor me, and it changed my career. It changed my life. I decided that was much bigger than a one-time breakout session at one conference in one industry, so I wrote a book. I have been speaking on this topic for a little over a year now. It just keeps growing and growing and growing. I think it’s a message that really resonates with people and it’s a topic that makes diversity and inclusion accessible to people, but also relevant to them wherever they are in their careers.

Halelly: Wow. That’s a very big change, going from being an internal in a large organization for so long and also focused on a totally different topic, it sounds like, and all of the sudden now an author and a speaker and making a very different kind of impact in the world. It sounds like you’re enjoying that?

Amy: I am very much. This is great impact, great meaning in my life and I feel like it’s exactly what I was born to do.

Halelly: How did you get the idea to come up with this topic, particularly, when you submitted that talk?

Amy: In the insurance industry, there’s a lot of focus right now on the talent cliff, because we have so many individuals who are approaching retirement age or have already reached retirement age, and such a large percentage of that industry is set to exit very soon. The younger people coming out of school aren’t looking at insurance as a potential career. You don’t ask a 5-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and have them say, “I want to be an underwriter or a claims adjustor.” They’re kind of invisible jobs, in terms of how people think about work and the future. I knew there was a talent shortage. I also knew there was a big focus in the industry on diversity and inclusion, because I had been working at a major employer for quite a while, and I’d been very involved in their diversity inclusion efforts as kind of a volunteer leader within the organization. I felt like I had learned a lot and I wanted to share some of that outside the organization, not specific to what the organization was doing, but because I had been reading so much to kind of contribute at this volunteer level. I wanted to share some of what I’d learned. I had to make it relevant to people who were in all different job functions and at all different levels of corporate hierarchy or owning their own business, so it had to be something that was really relevant, regardless of where people were in their careers, and networking was the first thing I thought of in terms of what would be relevant to everyone. Because everyone in a professional setting needs a strong professional network, but also from a diversity inclusion perspective, where better to demonstrate our individual commitment to diversity and inclusion than in our professional networks?

Halelly: So you merged, in a sense, one topic that you felt there was a great need to learn about and one topic that seemed to have a great interest for people?

Amy: Yes.

Halelly: That’s smart. Is that what led you to write the book, Networking Beyond Bias?

Amy: It is. Once I had the framework in mind and had started blogging already, I found a book coach and she helped me through the process of writing the book, which was fantastic. I knew this assessment would be a part of the book. I wasn’t exactly sure how to structure the conversation around the assessment, because I felt like there was so much background information people needed if they were going to make good decisions about networking. So instead of making the assessment kind of the top of the arc, and putting information at the beginning and then giving some tips at the end, I kind of walked through the whole case in the book and then at the end I say here’s how you can assess your own network. I share a lot of personal stories – some of them not very flattering – in the book, about my journey to get to this point. What I’m still learning and I’ve been told by people who maybe were not as interested in the diversity and inclusion aspect of the book as the networking that my sharing my journey really helped them feel like they could start taking a step. A lot of people in this space feel like, “I can’t say anything because it might be the wrong thing.” And so they avoid people because they’re worried about offending people. I hope that through my stories and my journey and my own awkwardness which will continue for the rest of my life, I’m able to inspire some people. Maybe say the wrong thing, and here’s how to apologize for that and move forward and build connections anyway.

Halelly: I think you’re right. Personally, I can see it myself, and I think I see it everywhere else, that the more that there is a spotlight on diversity and inclusion and the more that they become topics, it seems like there’s just more and more ways in which you have to recognize differences and more categories and more specific language that is right to say and wrong to say and political correctness being what it is, it just feels like everybody is walking on eggshells and so it makes sense that people avoid having interactions where if you don’t want to offend, if that’s a good intention, but it leads to bad outcomes if you’re completely avoiding entire swaps of the population?

Amy: Absolutely. We do it all the time. Not just across race, gender, sexual orientation, but people’s accents can get in the way because we don’t want to misunderstand what they say, and so then we just don’t talk to them, or if someone has a disability and we don’t know how to shake their hand appropriately, we avoid the interaction, so we don’t shake their hand at all. We’re really missing out on so many opportunities to create change or to create this inclusion, not just for other people but for ourselves as well.

Halelly: So what do we need to do? What should we do differently?

Amy: The first thing you need to do is you need to understand what are your default behaviors? What are the decisions you make without realizing you’re making a decision? For example, where you sit when you go to a conference. Who you talk to or invite out for coffee when you start a new job. If you’re at a conference, as another example, what breakout sessions do you go to?

Halelly: Okay, I’ll answer that one. For example, when I’m at a conference I go to sessions that have a topic that seems aligned with my interests.

Amy: Most people do that, and that’s great, but you want to balance that. For example, I was at a higher education conference about a year ago. There was a breakout session on African Americans seeking tenure. I thought, “Wow, what a fantastic opportunity for me to learn,” one, about the tenure process because I don’t have experience in higher education, but also about this unique experience, the extra obstacles in the tenure process for people of color and African Americans in particular. I was so disappointed that I was the only white person in that breakout session. Someone asked me why I was there and I said, “I’m here to learn.” I didn’t ask questions in the session and I didn’t correct anyone on their lived experiences. I just sat and listened. What I learned was the experience of African Americans seeking tenure in the higher education system is not dissimilar from the experience of African Americans in the business sector who want to get promoted or want to break into management or executive ranks. There are these commonalities across industry that I think people are missing out on because they don’t go. The people from the education conference don’t show up at the finance conference and vice versa. I think we’re all just missing opportunities to kind of connect and help each other because we don’t go to the thing that’s not for us nearly often enough.

Halelly: That’s interesting, and I guess in some ways this connects to a concept of being a network broker or kind of some of the things we’ve talked about with previous guest Michael Simmons on the show, where the people that are interested in groups and topics and organizations and ideas that are outside of their immediate field or immediate group or network are usually the ones that bring the most value to their network because they’re the ones that are able to bring in fresh perspectives and new ideas and also to make connections among different, potentially what seems to be unrelated things that when you mix them together they create something new that’s of great value and innovative. Like you connecting networking with diversity and inclusion. I don’t know how much there is out there – you probably did the research before you decided to write a book about it – but it seems to me not that much. So that’s a unique new way of marrying two different fields. I imagine if more people did what you’re suggesting, they would be able to add value back to their home peeps, who are usually just hanging out with the same people, learning about the same things, about the same topics.

Amy: Exactly. That’s why the subtitle of the book is “making diversity a competitive advantage for your career.” Because other people don’t know to do this. And if you’re the one doing it, you’re the one creating opportunity for yourself and for others.

Halelly: Can you tell maybe an example or two of things you’ve seen people do or examples that demonstrate more of this way of diversifying your network, adding value?

Amy: Sure. One example, the future of your industry – whatever industry you’re in – the future of your industry is likely already happening in another industry. It’s great, if you can get out and talk to people in another industry about what they’re doing, what they’re experiencing, what their challenges are, it gives you a glimpse into your future. Then you’re able to lead because you can plan ahead. I see people do this with technology and finance, or technology and insurance, or technology and education. They don’t stay within their genre of work or within their specific industry. They’re out there learning how are other people solving this problem already? So that they’re not recreating a solution from scratch.

The other thing is, it’s just fun. I know a lot of people in a lot of different industries now, which is amazing because I didn’t do that before. I didn’t do that before I went through this process. And I’m able to connect people in ways I never could have before. I’ve met people who are foreign policy experts and I’ve been able to connect them with interviewers or hiring managers or publicists. I’ve been able to connect people with stories to tell to journalists that want to tell their stories. I’ve been able to connect people. Just this week I was at a conference and a woman said that she was looking for a part-time position in recruiting, and I said, “Give me your card because I will meet someone within the next two weeks that’s looking for somebody like you.” That’s how it always happens. I think I don’t know anyone and then I’ll hear a conversation where somebody says they need something, and it happened not 15 minutes later. A gentleman walked up to me and I asked what he did and he said he was a recruiter in an expanding firm and I said, “I know just who you need to talk to. Come with me.”

And so once you start looking for these connections and this ability to connect people in different places, it really has an impact not just on you, but on them. When you’ve helped somebody connect to a job or a new opportunity or a promotion, you’ve just made a friend for life. It doesn’t matter what industry they’re in. They’re going to remember you.

Halelly: It’s true. It’s a big differentiator and it’s always good to help others and to be a generous giver in terms of networking and opportunities because it always comes back to you because people are eager to repay. It’s not a debt, really, and they don’t owe you anything, because you probably didn’t expect anything in return, but they do feel kind of like they want to reciprocate.

Amy: Absolutely.

Halelly: I know in your book you also talk about this concept that’s been coming up everywhere, with all my clients. They’re talking about this thing called unconscious bias. I’d love for you to take the opportunity here to describe this to the listeners. What does this mean and what’s wrong with it, I guess? It’s a bias, so that’s probably wrong, and how do we get rid of it?

Amy: Sure. I love the way you phrase that question, because I’m going to dismantle the whole thing. So, unconscious bias goes back to these decisions we make without realizing we’re making a decision. When we’re born, we start to interpret the way the world is treating us, from the very beginning, and we start to form this identity around how we’re being treated. The example I typically use is, I was not a star athlete in grade school. I had no depth perception, I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life, so I feel like I developed an identity around always being picked last in gym for everything that is probably a much different identity than the person who eventually became captain of the football team, right? We just got treated differently. I created an identity that included and incorporated that. All these ways that we get treated, the way the world responds to us, kind of builds our identity up. At the same time, we’re taking on the values of the culture around us, of our families, and we’re learning how to internalize that. It helps us stay out of trouble. At the same time, we start to make judgments about people who are like us or not like us and we start to form our affiliates and relationships within that bubble of people who are like us, whose identity or who we perceive match our own identities. Then we start to choose our experiences in alignment with that.

Somebody like me, who can’t catch a ball, I’m not likely to go join a rec league baseball team. I am much more likely to play Scrabble on a Saturday than play baseball. I would choose my experiences accordingly, and other people are doing that too, and that keeps us kind of in this bubble. What happens, though, over time, we don’t even realize we’re making a choice anymore. All of these preferences that we have then become sort of unconscious because they’re not registering anymore in our brains. Our brains just can’t process that much information, so we discard a lot of information. More than 99 percent of the information that we take in actually makes it to the processing part of our brain. And so you ask, “How do we get rid of this?” And the answer is we can’t get rid of it. What we can do, though, is get beyond it. We can recognize that we’re doing it, we can recognize that we have these default patterns of behavior, of forming relationships, of putting ourselves in certain experiences, and then we can notice what those patterns are and notice when we’re being challenged or when we’re uncomfortable and explore why are we uncomfortable? We can observe what the people around us are doing differently, and imagine what are the experiences or identifies or values that they’re seeking to protect or that they brought into this situation that are different? Then we can do what I call pressing your pause button, and it’s really simple. You put your finger on that little divot under your nose for just a moment and instead of coming out with your first response, you go back and you think about all the possible responses that you could have in that moment and then you take your finger away and you actually verbalize the best response. It makes all the difference. Sometimes it’s not what you’re speaking, so much as what you’re deciding. Where am I going to sit today? Who am I going to talk to? All of these patterns that once we start recognizing them, we can break them, we can get beyond them and we can really grow in our careers.

Halelly: One of the things I talk about with people is to try and be a fascination detective. It’s a term I think I coined, which is instead of assuming that someone is not interesting or too different or that we have nothing in common, a lot of times we shy away from those conversations and we choose the easy ones, which usually mean that we are gravitating toward people who are just like us or similar or we already know we have something in common. If we assume that every person has something that’s fascinating, potentially fascinating, in them or about them, and we seek to find what that is, it makes it easier to have conversations and it makes our conversations a lot more interesting. Plus other people really enjoy talking with us, because we are asking curious questions about them, and having them talk about themselves in a way that many other people don’t do. So they enjoy us as conversationalists, better.

Amy: Absolutely. I’ll be honest, I used to be so afraid of small talk, of networking at all. It was something that felt very uncomfortable for me and it’s a skill, just like public speaking, just like using Excel spreadsheets. Networking is a skill. Human interaction is a skill. Empathy is a skill. If we just think about those things as skills we can acquire, things we can become proficient in and constantly make ourselves better in those spaces if they’re important to us, but at least get some level of proficiency, so that we’re not uncomfortable anymore of we work through that discomfort, I think it makes a huge difference.

Halelly: It does. To me, unconscious bias, the way I see it, it falls in line with a lot of the explanations we have for how we operate as humans that are most deeply rooted in our ancient pasts and the way our biology is set up to help us stay safe. The in group and out group, that whole thing comes from a need to make sure that you’re surrounded with people you can trust so that when you turn your back to do your job – we’re cooperating, so one person is in charge of feeding the kids and one person is in charge of protecting the campground and one person is in charge of hunting down the meals – so if we couldn’t trust the people that are on our team to do their job, or to watch our back, then we could never function and nothing would ever work. We also need to watch out for people who are potentially predators or competitors because they might come and take away or hurt our possessions and our loved ones. This is, I think, how this whole “you’re not like me because you’re not the same color or from a different religion or you have a different accent,” that kind of comes from that very primal need to be surrounded by people we can trust. If they’re like us, we kind of can predict what they’re like and what their responses will be, which makes it safer than someone who is very, very different and seems unpredictable, at least to our primal part of our brain.

Amy: That is absolutely true. And you know, I always talk about it when I’m presenting as when you stepped out of your cave, you had to know is the thing in front of you something you can eat or something that will eat you? Is the person that you’re about to encounter in your group or out of your group, because it’s a life and death decision? At that time. Biology is still with us.

Halelly: Even though it’s still not helpful anymore. That’s why we’re trying to shed it and move into that rational part of our brain, which evolved, so that we can override some of those instinctual reactions and think about them. “Well, wait a minute? Is that true? Is that person really going to hurt me or maybe I’m just reacting in a primal way and I can do a better job here.”

Amy: Yes. Until we recognize that we’re having those responses, we’re powerless against them.

Halelly: Love it. Bringing the unconscious into the conscious and then moving from reactive to responsive. And choosing.

Amy: Yes.

Halelly: Good. Well, Amy, time is passing fast and I’ve enjoyed this conversation. Before you share one specific action, what’s new and exciting on your horizon?

Amy: Goodness. Well, I am working on a couple more books this year. I have one that’s coming out later this year on Moving From Panic to Purpose, how to respond to changes in your career. And that draws on my background as an IT professional in the early 2000s, where every six months I had to find a new job for one reason or another, usually not my fault. And I’m finding a lot more people can relate to that now because the change of pace is accelerating in other industries.

Halelly: That’s really exciting. Writing a book is not easy, so kudos to you. Very nice. We always invite our guests to share one super specific actionable tip at the end. It can be something that can help people with networking or in their career, with their leadership, whichever attack you want to take on it.

Amy: I’ll give you one super specific example, and that is when you connect with someone on LinkedIn, send them the reason why you’re connecting, and if someone connects with you without sending a reason, respond with, “Thank you for the invitation to connect. May I ask what prompted your request?” The reason I say to do this – and I’ll repeat that – “Thank you for the invitation to connect. May I ask what prompted your request?” Because then when that person shows up in your feed later and you wonder who they are, or they contact you with a question or you have a question about something they’re doing, you can go back into your messaging history in LinkedIn and remember how you connected in the first place.

Halelly: What do people usually say?

Amy: It depends. I speak all over and I write a lot, and sometimes people will name an acquaintance of mine and say that they told them they should connect with me. Or they will say, “I read your blog post on X and I really liked it,” or, “I heard you speak at my association event last week.” And I don’t meet everybody that meets me, right? I don’t know when people just blindly send a request, I don’t know who they are. Sometimes they’ll say something very telling like, “It’s always great to connect with new people.” And then I know that they don’t really mean to connect with me personally. They’re just trying to build a network. It just leads to good conversation. Sometimes they’re trying to sell me something and that gives them the chance to get that sales pitch out of the way. And then I don’t have to wonder what’s coming. I can just say, “That’s fascinating or that’s not something that interests me,” and then we’re done. We don’t have to have that tension, that unhealthy sales tension. But it really does help because I’ll meet a lot of people who are doing what I’m doing and they want to connect and then we don’t touch base for a few months and then they come back and I have to remember who they were, and I can go right back to that message and pull out, “Oh, we were at the same conference in California in March of 2017 and we kind of exchanged business cards briefly and didn’t really have a chance to talk.” That’s what I’ll put in the message. “Hey, it was great to meet you. I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk at the conference last week in wherever,” and so then I know when I go back, this is who this person is and how I met them.

Halelly: Cool. Very actionable and super specific. Thank you. Well, Amy I know that people are going to want to learn more from you and about you. Where’s the best place for them to do that?

Amy: The best place for them to do that is at LeadAtAnyLevel.com. From there you can find out way more about me and everything that I do than you would ever want to know. Also, I would like to offer your listeners an e-book, a free download, that I will send you the link for your show notes, but it’s download to 21 Insights For Your Career Around Inclusive Networking.

Halelly: Sounds great. Thank you, we love gifts. I’ll definitely link to that in the show notes as well as to your website. Do you invite people to follow you on any kind of social media networks?

Amy: Yes, you can find me on Twitter, @LeadAtAnyLevel, or @AmyCWaninger, or also on LinkedIn @AmyCWaninger or @LeadAtAnyLevel, and when you connect, please tell me that you heard about me on the TalentGrow Show.

Halelly: Right. If you really listened, that’s the tip and you’re supposed to do it! Cool. Thank you Amy for your time today. We appreciate you stopping by the TalentGrow Show and sharing your insights.

Amy: Thank you so much.

Halelly: Love those super specific tips, when guests share those, because we can then take action and as you know, TalentGrowers, insights are good, but action makes for impact. Let’s take action and I also want to hear from you about what you thought about this episode and what you’d like to hear on future episodes of the TalentGrow Show. I’m always welcome to your feedback and input and you can leave me a voice message on my website, any page of my website has that little black tab on the right, or you can leave me a short message with your voice. If you want, and if it’s clear enough audio and you give me permission, I can even use your comment or question on a future episode of the TalentGrow Show. Wouldn’t that be cool? Of course if you don’t already have it, we have a free download for you, for listeners of the TalentGrow Show, called “10 mistakes that leaders make and how to avoid them,” and you can grab that over there on the show notes page over at TalentGrow.com and that will allow you to avoid those mistakes and also stay in touch with me and learn about every new episode that comes out every week.

Thanks for listening. I really appreciate you. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow and this has been the TalentGrow Show. Until the next time, make today great.

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