In my experience of coaching hundreds of women all over the world, there is a potent tension when it comes to women and networking. On the one hand, from an extensive body of research and practice, we know that networking is very important for career transitions in general, and for leadership transitions in particular. And yet many women, introverts, and people from certain cultures tend to be very resistant to networking, for a variety of reasons.
What is networking?
In a professional context, ‘networking’ means fostering and developing good relationships with other professionals – whether in your own field or others – for mutual career benefit.
Networks and contacts can be developed almost anywhere – at specific networking events, or at work meetings and conferences, clubs and interest groups, trainings or social occasions – either in person or virtually, online, and through social media groups and sites for professionals and leaders.
Having a range of contacts in your network means that you have a wider selection of individuals to whom you can turn whenever you need them – which will help you to achieve your professional and career goals.
Why is networking important?
Immediately, we can see that networking is important for our careers and the advancement of our goals.
What is sometimes less obvious is how important networking is for nurturing leadership effectiveness and success. Networking is both a key leadership responsibility and a personal and professional skill. It helps:
- build social capital by having a wider range of resources
- give us firmer links with diverse stakeholders and makes for stronger, more meaningful ties with partners
- gather intelligence
- gets things done – by utilising people’s influence, contacts, skills, knowledge and experience
- enables us to access more resources – not just in financial and human terms, but by offering wider opportunities for our team or organization.
Why don’t people network?
In my work as a leadership coach, and as confirmed during my recent Women’s Networking Workshop, I have noted 3 main reasons why people don’t network –
- Time: they say they have ‘no time’ to network
- Limiting assumptions: they hold a belief that networking is ‘sleazy/opportunistic’; or that ‘my work should speak for itself’
- Know-how: they ‘don’t know how to do it.’
So, how can we work around these? I like to start with some reframing.
This is my 3-point plan for reformulating networking as a positive, do-able, even enjoyable part of your work, that is both valuable and essential.
1. Re-examine your limiting beliefs and assumptions about networking.
If, like many of my clients, you have negative associations with networking – this is the place to start. What springs to mind when you think about networking?
Check your own limiting beliefs about networking– and challenge them with evidence to the contrary:
- Who does networking well?
- What do they do – and how do they do it?
If you have trouble with networking, it may be time to challenge and update any negative beliefs you have about it. Or at least, to incorporate some of its positive value and positive examples.
2. Reclaim the value of reciprocity
Believe it or not, networking was never intended to be one-sided; yet, in many people’s minds, the principle of reciprocity has either been distorted into a transactional exercise or has disappeared entirely. We have completely forgotten that networking has its fundamental basis in reciprocity and mutual benefit.
How can we reclaim the value of reciprocity and make it central to our understanding of networking?
- Ask yourself: if I let the principle of reciprocity lead my networking efforts – what will my networking look like? Or: how can service and support form part of my networking efforts?
By focusing on mutual benefit, we can create a more virtuous relationship and experience.
3. Recognize your contribution
Remind yourself of what you have to give to people (e.g. skills, qualities, knowledge, experience, contacts). As well as boosting your confidence, it will give you a list of ways you can help people to achieve their own goals. Then, you have an opportunity to practice with your contacts.
- What do you bring?
- What are your areas of expertise?
- How can you help others?
Done right, networking can be a virtuous circle in which you connect with people, and both sides gain more, give more, and together, create more.
The goal is to reformulate networking in a way that aligns with your personality, your goals and your values. Once you have done this, it is easier to move on to the act of networking.
5 Networking Tips to Make the Experience Easier and More Enjoyable
1. Prepare: Goals, Stocktaking, Materials
Prepare for the experience – just like you would with any other activity.
What are your networking goals? What activities have you identified to get you there?
For example, you may have an overarching goal of building a more diverse network so that you can advance in your career. And one activity is to reach out to several professional colleagues to inform them that you are looking for a more senior post.
You may want to start by conducting a networking audit to identify the kind of people you already know – with a view to identifying a plan for adding other people you need to know.
Understanding your goals and knowing who is currently in your network (and who else you might need to know) will help you to prepare and plan accordingly:
- Who, specifically, do you want to meet? And for what purpose?
- What message you want to convey?
- What is your ask?
- What can you offer them?
- How will you be reaching out?
You may also want to prepare some materials in advance. For example: prepare an introduction or pitch, your ask, as well as some conversational ice-breakers. Or have a list of questions ready, to enable you to start a conversation. You might also wish to remind yourself of ways to build rapport and to influence people.
Rehearse, if need be – particularly if speaking with strangers or networking feels uncomfortable to you. The more comfortable you feel, the better the engagement – your own comfort and confidence will also put the other person at ease. So, practice is an important part of our preparation.
Caveat: don’t over-prepare to the extent that it sounds scripted, or you can’t improvise or go with the flow if the situation warrants it.
3. Listen: being present and engaged
Don’t underestimate the gift of listening. Showing a genuine interest in your contact is an important and authentic way to start building a relationship.
So, listen carefully to them and ask open-ended questions that encourage them to talk at length, not just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Aim to listen twice as much as you talk, and ensure that you are obviously and actively paying attention and showing interest. There are some good tools for active listening in my article here.
Generous listening is something you can bring to the relationship, and contribute – and this is also one of the most important and powerful factors in building relationships.
4. Follow up
Think of the initial meeting or contact as the start of a relationship, not as an end in itself. This relationship needs to be nurtured, to grow and be fruitful. After the initial meeting, send a friendly email to say, ‘Great to meet you!’
Follow-up on any requests or promises made. Arrange further meetings, and generally, keep in touch.
It’s all too easy to meet and move on to other things, but for greater learning and insight, it is always useful to self-reflect, and reflect on your experiences.
Think about your last networking meeting or conversation.
- What went well?
- What would you differently next time?
- How can you improve your networking practice?
Put each experience to greater effect as an iterative learning process.
Networking is important for career success and leadership transitions – and also for forming valuable interpersonal relationships of any kind. So, don’t leave things to chance. Preparation for networking increases the likelihood of successful outcomes and helps in managing our emotions (and those of others), particularly if networking takes you out of your comfort zone. In brief, before networking, prepare and practice. While networking, listen. Follow up to consolidate your (net)work, and make time to reflect and learn, to improve your networking in future.
Combined together, we are far more than the sum of our parts. Successful leaders know how to network to increase the share of the pie for everyone. This is what virtuous networking is all about – giving and receiving, in the spirit of all parties moving forward. Make your network improve your net worth – and that of others.
If you’d like to do more leadership reflection, download the Leadership Self-Reflection and Action Worksheet – great leadership reflection prompts.
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