There’s more to networking than working endless drinks receptions. While meeting the right people can be tough, figuring out who those people are in the first place can be even tougher. This is particularly important for women, according to the networking panel at MT’s Inspiring Women in Business conference yesterday.
Men find it easier to network because they tend to overlap social and work relationships more than women, says Zella King, chief executive and co-founder of Personal Boardroom. That’s no cause for despair though, as women tend to connect with people ‘because we like them’, she says. ‘That’s a great strength – we are ourselves. The challenge is to make sure we use our social relationships for career purposes too.’
But what’s the best way of doing that?
Mind the gaps
Different people play different roles in your network, according to King. Some have power roles, such as control of the budget or hiring policies. Others bring information and insight that can make you better at your job. Then there’s the navigators, who can introduce you to the right people, and the inspirers who challenge you, boost your confidence and keep you honest.
‘Identify where your gaps are. When you know what kind of gap you’ve got, it’s easier to identify a person who can help you and go to them with a specific role in mind,’ King says. That could involve going to them directly or asking someone you know (a ‘navigator’) to connect you. ‘The best way to build an effective network is to have conversations.’
Quality > Quantity
There are only so many hours in the day for those conversations of course, and casting your net too wide risks a meagre haul. Indeed, you could end up neglecting your ‘core’ network of close current and ex colleagues. For Celia Pronto, group marketing & e-commerce director at Ford Retail Group/TrustFord, consistency and reciprocity are therefore essential.
‘Networking is not one of those things you can dip in and out of. You’ve got to invest in the relationships and be helpful. It’s not just expecting something from the people you meet,’ Pronto says. It also doesn’t have to be as formal as approaching someone to be your mentor. ‘It’s more about establishing trust and credibility. Then they will take you with them.’
For Bella Vuillermoz, director of women in leadership at Sky, the best people to approach are often not more senior mentor figures at all. ‘What I find most valuable is peer coaches. I help them and they help me. It might be an issue in your day job or a personal challenge at work,’ she says.
Being strategic is important when building a smart network, but there obviously comes a time when you need to stop thinking and start doing (well, talking anyway). ‘Don’t be afraid. In my experience, people genuinely want to help,’ says Pronto.
Just as importantly, while there’s no harm in asking, there’s also no telling where a quick chat will take you. ‘The best advice came from my mum: speak to everyone and anyone,’ counsels Brie Rogers Lowery, deputy managing director and Europe and UK director at Change.org. ‘You never know who that person may know.’
Which, of course, is the essence of networking. It’s not what you know, eh?