Networking is one of the most used catchwords in business today. Anyone who has an inkling of ambition understands that building a network is essential to success. Understanding the necessity and importance is a step in the right direction, but HOW do you build a network and more importantly the RIGHT network? More experienced business women might find themselves with a robust virtual rolodex without having put a lot of conscious effort forward, the result of simply putting in time. Others may have to work really hard at connecting with people, entrepreneurs for example, or occupations that demand more solitary or remote work environments. Women in early phases of their career may also struggle or feel a little lost in space when it comes to building a network particularly outside of their immediate workplace.
So what is the importance of networking? There is the obvious benefit of open doors to opportunities that may not hit the mainstream. When people know you personally and professionally they are more inclined to hire you or advocate for you. There is the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" benefit. The customer relationship for example. Knowledge enhancement is another benefit, learning from someone else's successes, experiences, or pathways. Human connection, perhaps the biggest benefit. Research shows that humans need connection. It increases cognitive performance and the immune system. Lack of connection has proven to increase rates of heart disease, dementia, and even early death. The list of benefits goes on.
Women vs. Men. Networking typically occurs in more informal settings. Think water cooler, happy hours, business lunches. It has been proven that women have a harder time with informal networking (1). We are less likely to get invited to after-work happy hours, and we are less inclined to initiate or attend informal opportunities. Movements like #metoo, while endlessly important, have negatively contributed to this notion of excluding a woman or women from non-formal social networking events with male peers, for fear of accusation.
Photo Credit: Brielle Drelick of @DenverOfficeSpace
So how do we, as women, build a thriving network?
A network can be built in the most unlikely of places don't look past neighbors, coffee shop owners, people you meet on the bus, the hair salon, waiting for your car to be washed. Prioritizing randomness as you build your network, will only help diversify your contacts and associated knowledge and opportunities. Ideally, you cast the net wide yet foster an inner circle as well. Women in particular benefit from this dual-pronged practice.
Build it before you need it no one wants to meet with someone only to find out that their sole objective is self-serving. Constantly strive to put those bricks in place on an on-going basis, and before you know it you will have a solid foundation.
Seek out people different from yourself we tend to gravitate to people like us, for obvious reasons, common life experiences and interests make the relationship more comfortable. This is hard-wired. However, this defeats the purpose of networking. Be sure to think about degrees of separation and connect to as many people with many degrees of separation from your core network. Connecting with diverse experience levels, roles, and personalities takes work, but a diverse network will pay big dividends in the breadth and depth of influence on your career.
Meet in person in a world where electronic communication is default, it can be easy to overlook the importance of human connection. Women, as a gender, prioritize process and relationships more so than men, it is in our DNA (2). An in-person interaction not only allows for you to read body language and facial cues, but people are more inclined to help people, not electronic transcriptions. Research has shown that in-person interactions are more productive and effective as opposed to virtual scenarios.
Set a goal regardless of your seniority level relative to the "networkee", everyones' time is valuable. Casual conversation is imperative to fostering a friendly personal relationship, but be conscious of the other persons time constraints and their goals and objectives. The goal does not have to be a job offer, rather it can be a new contact, or a pearl of wisdom, or a piece of advice. Go in with a goal, be an active listener, and be open to new paths the conversation may take you down. Depending on who you are meeting with, setting a rough agenda might make sense and will help keep the conversation on point.
Attend events there is new research looking at women who attend networking events and the impact on promotions, income, and engagement. The results are astounding! In the year after connecting with peers at a conference, the likelihood of receiving a promotion doubled. And in that same year, attendees had triple the likelihood of a 10%+ pay increase. Arguably more important were the engagement findings.
78% percent of women who attended a conference felt “more optimistic about the future” and 71% of the attendees said that they “feel more connected to others”. A consistent theme, we need connection.
Give more than you take as you enter a networking engagement think about the "whats in it for them". Even if you are the less senior person at the table do not underestimate the connections you might be able to share or important insights that may not be obvious to them (the many facets of the millenial generation to a GenX'r or a Baby Boomer, for example). Try to give more than you take on an ongoing basis as this will prime the pump, making it easier, when you are in a position to ask for something.
Be Central, keep men close and ladies closer. Another study looking at MBA students and their respective networks vs. the jobs they received out of school showed that women, who achieved the highest ranking roles and associated pay relative to other women, had a robust network of men but also had to have an inner circle of close female contacts. If you find yourself surrounded by mostly men, do not underestimate the importance of the female circle no matter what the scarcity of supply might be.
So there you go.... a few tips to get you off to the races. And, don't forget to enjoy the journey!
“The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.” ~ Ferrazzi
(1) Annis, B (2014) Work With Me. St. Martin's Griffin.
(2) DeBoer, K (2004) Gender and Competition. Coaches Choice.
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