Much has been written about the benefits of networking – sharing information and ideas, making connections, influencing people, building relationships and finding support or collaborators. Ultimately, networking is key to your career progress and crucial to your professional development!
But time and time again in my coaching practice, I still meet clients – especially women leaders – who avoid networking because they want to know ‘how to do it’ without it feeling inauthentic or manipulative. They want practical ways they can network effectively while remaining true to themselves.
In my Forbes article, 4 Actions to Set Up Networking for Success and in other posts, we’ve talked about the importance of getting in the right frame of mind and the importance of seeing networking as an opportunity for reciprocity and contribution. We’ve also stressed the importance of defining your networking goals and conducting a networking audit to see exactly what you want, who is in your network and who it’s helpful to add.
Done your prep? Let’s look at 5 things you can do to expand your network.
5 Ways For Women to Network
1. Look inside and outside your organization
Start by identifying opportunities that exist in your organization – task forces, working groups, stretch assignments, employee resource groups, extra curricular groups that you could join to gain exposure beyond your immediate colleagues. And don’t forget to look for opportunities beyond your organization such as conferences, professional associations, interest groups to broaden your professional circle.
- Which projects, working parties or task forces within your organization can you sign up for?
- Which extracurricular interest, social or non-work related activities within or outside your organization can you sign up to?
- How can you get wider recognition or exposure for yourself and what you do –
- Inside your organization? (Across departments/ sites/ levels).
- Outside it? (Industry events, national/regional meetings, seminars, conferences, partnerships, community activities, communities of interest, events).
2. Prioritize events and activities – and commit
Many people cite ‘lack of time’ as a reason not to network.
You don’t have to attend every networking opportunity. Make decisions to select which are the most important activities to attend – within your organization and outside. Then commit to investing the time and effort in making these events work for you – by attending, participating and actively networking. This means not only being present physically – but emotionally and mentally – don’t disappear to check phone-calls or emails during coffee breaks, or run away when the formal sessions finish. Take time and pay attention to people. Speak out, listen to others, and make connections.
- Select a limited number of events or activities/groups to attend.
- At the event/meeting, select a limited number of people (1-3 new contacts) to focus on and have conversations with.
- Arrange to meet at a later date for a coffee and chat – or to further the project/your mutual interests.
Try prioritizing a few key opportunities and plan how you will make the most of these.
3. Be pro-active: offer to speak, interview, or organize an event
Move from participant to speaker or organizer. Offer to chair a discussion or panel, interview a speaker, present a session, run a workshop or be speaker yourself. Or organize an event or meeting in which you can host or present, or lead a discussion.
Yes – it requires extra effort and preparation, and it may feel daunting – but the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. You will be more visible – in fact, you will be both seen and heard.
By putting yourself ‘out there’, people will recognize you and feel they know you – and your work, experience or passions. It gives points of connection. People have an excuse and reason to talk to you more spontaneously, and to potentially build a relationship.
4. Tend to your ‘weak ties’
You might think that the most important relationships are those with whom you have most in common: your oldest friends and colleagues, and your closest, most trusted people. But there is also high value in what Herminia Ibarra calls ‘weak ties’– the people we don’t (yet) know very well, or those we don’t meet often or speak to regularly.
The fact is, these weaker ties and more distant contacts are precisely the people we need in our network. They will stretch us and develop us more effectively than people just ‘like us,’ in similar fields or with similar backgrounds. Our ‘weak ties’ have information, experience, skills, links and connections that we don’t already have – and when we get to know them, we develop, grow and progress. They can also connect us to other people, organizations, groups, societies and networks to which we don’t have direct access.
- Make a list of your weak ties – the people you don’t know very well.
- Be open to possibilities. They don’t have to be senior people you want to impress – everyone has something to offer, or to gain, from a deeper connection.
- Be proactive by identifying who can help you. Who knows what’s going on? Who is a problem-solver? Who is key in communications/information channels?
- Contact them by email or telephone and arrange to meet for a coffee, lunch, or chat.
- Go into it with an outcome in mind. E.g. to give them, or gain, value – from information, a contact, tip or referral; to find out more about them/their work; or with the aim of simply enjoying different company.
- See where the conversation takes you.
It’s well worth stepping outside your network comfort zone, because it’s outside the ‘norm’ that the greatest learning and benefits lie.
5. Reach out – ask people to connect you to others
Leverage your existing network by asking your contacts to connect you to other people in their own network. Ask them to make introductions for you, and make referrals to people they know – which will all help you to expand your contact list and develop wider relationships.
- Identify who you need to know.
- Which groups are valuable and appropriate to you – especially to achieve your career and professional aims?
- Which people in these groups do you need to speak to?
- Identify a couple of people it would be helpful for you to get to know. Then, think: who can help you to meet them or, at least, contact them?
- Ask them for an introduction.
- Make contact and/or invite them to meet you.
See also my Forbes article, Building Relationships And Influencing People: Part 2.
There are other things you can do – for example, volunteer or offer to mentor someone – and many other networking ideas. What are yours?
Once you have developed your network, do maintain it. Keep in touch. Offer value by sharing useful or interesting information: the equivalent of ‘I saw this and thought of you’. Send contacts pertinent news or articles every few months. Congratulate them on a project completed or a new role or promotion.
Just as a garden needs feeding, tending and watering – your network needs time, care and attention.
Networking is a necessity of the day job, so it is never time wasted. Look on it as an investment. Identify networking opportunities and prioritise where to put your energy; be proactive and visible; nurture your weaker ties and leverage the contacts you already have. Through these means, you can easily expand your network, and receive the benefits in your development and growth.
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LinkedIn: Palena Neale