“Networking is my idea of hell.”
These are the exact words spoken by a woman attendee at a recent event where I gave a talk about the importance of networking.
Her sentiments are echoed by many professional women who have experienced a traditional networking approach, which is:
a) based on entering a crowded room full of strangers and making small talk
b) scheduled on evenings and weekends, making it impossible to fit in around family commitments and
c) centred on male-oriented activities like rugby and golf
No wonder so many women shudder when they’re told they need to “network” in order to advance their careers. What’s more alarming is that this approach doesn’t even work for us. A recent HBR article, “Why Networking More is Bad Advice For Women,” dissects several research studies which prove that standard approaches to getting ahead fail women – and can even backfire. The article’s author, Sarah Green Carmichael, concludes: “To me, the upshot of all of this research is increasingly clear: we need to stop telling women to follow a male playbook.”
What if women rewrote the playbook?
Clearly, there has to be a better way. But what does “good” networking look like? How can we make it more palatable to – and productive for – professional women. Here are five strategies that have worked for me:
1. Start with giving
The key to successful networking for women is adapting a completely different mindset: one that is based on giving vs. getting. The famous law of reciprocity! A Fast Company article, “A Networking Paradigm Shift: Focus on Giving Not Taking,” explains it quite well: Networking from a giving rather than a getting perspective is “a much more empowered way to think about your career: It forces you to realize that you are not a needy person who has to rely on others to succeed, and focuses on the many things you have to offer the world.”
2. Join a women’s networking group
By design, many women-centric networking groups provide a supportive environment and operate according to the “give vs. get” philosophy. At Cisco, I’m the global and EMEAR co-lead for Connected Women, a global community at Cisco formed by volunteers to attract, develop, retain, and celebrate talented women as part of a competitive and diverse workforce. It isn’t an “HR initiative” – it’s run by women who all have a day job and who give up their time to proactively share experiences and to help and support other women.
Another terrific women’s networking resource is WeAreTheCity, a website and organisation that promotes female-related networks, events, and training in the UK. In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, WeAreTheCity’s Founder Vanessa Vallely offered this advice: “Don’t put too much emphasis on the word networking. It’s the art of having a conversation with someone and being inquisitive and getting to know them.”
3. Embrace digital networking
Many women who don’t enjoy traditional in-person networking are absolutely daunted by digital networking. But this need not be the case – especially if you take a “what can I give/what can I learn” stance.
Using social platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook is a brilliant way to surround yourself with supportive, varied, and incredibly knowledgeable people –not just people who can “deliver.” Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, has just published a great article “Who’s afraid of Digital Networking? Women?”. She advises us “what works in-person also works online. So when you approach the social world, put aside your fears and misconceptions and remember that there’s a person behind every worthwhile social media account”.
In fact, a diverse network may be critical to generating innovative ideas, according to a new recent study on Twitter conducted by MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Another study, by Facebook’s data team, shows that it’s easier than ever to find and make connections with interesting people – regardless of where in the world they’re located.
The takeaway? People are on social networking platforms because they want to share. There’s very little small talk. And, because you can do it wherever, whenever, it may be a better fit for working mothers.
4. Stay in touch
Everyone has a pre-existing network of colleagues, former classmates, and industry acquaintances. But, like any relationship, your network needs attention in order to thrive. So stay in touch with people – through both physical and virtual means – on a regular basis, not just when you need something.
Connect with people on LinkedIn to see what they’re up to. Have drinks with people you used to work with. Go to your university reunions – or give talks at alumni events. Retain the mind-set of having conversations instead of extracting favours. And remember – treat people well, up and down the food chain. After all, your former employee could be your next boss.
5. Perform random acts of kindness
To be successful at “give-driven” networking, you have to actually care about other people’s success instead of just your own – and you have to show it. Strengthen your network through small, day-to-day acts: help head-hunters when they call, recommend people on LinkedIn, tweet about people’s books or blog posts, send a congratulatory note to someone who received a promotion or started a new job.
This process does not have to be overly time consuming. Keep your finger on your network’s pulse with a service like Newsle (now part of LinkedIn) – it scans your contacts and notifies you when someone you know is “in the news.” Random acts of kindness have a boomerang effect – the goodwill you extend will eventually come back to you.
Where to from here?
Personally, I’ve always placed huge value on networking and have made the effort, even when sometimes I didn’t feel like doing so. The kind of ‘old-style’ networking that is driven by uncomfortable, inconvenient, needs-based transactions quite frankly is my idea of hell too. So let’s invent a new way of networking that doesn’t fill us with dread, based on supportive, dynamic, relationship-building interactions. Sounds much more like my cup of tea. What do you think?