It’s 6pm on a Thursday. I’m home from work and its been a long day, a long week in fact. There are a couple of evening engagements in my calendar that I ought to attend but just can’t summon up the energy for. In the end, it’s my husband who forces me out the door, pointing out the benefits of being present at both events. And ultimately, I’m glad I made the effort, not just because I enjoyed myself but because I also connected with a great potential strategic partner for my organization.
And that’s really the point of networking. I like to compare it to the difference between casually window shopping and coming across things you need, versus desperately hunting for that one crucial item within a set deadline. When you’re out and about connecting with your industry, the helpful relationships you forge along the way are organic and valuable. Networking is the lifeblood of an entrepreneur and I can name countless friends and colleagues who met their investors or sourced clients at conferences, or who found their business partners and made new hires through industry parties.
As you climb higher up the career ladder, the nature and purpose of networking morphs and changes. Earlier on, it’s about getting to know your industry and building up your contacts. Further down the line, once you have experience and have proved your ability, cultivating the high-level relationships that can continue to propel you forward is key. Carla Harris, Vice Chairman and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley and one of the most successful women in banking articulates this perfectly: “What I’ve found is that women tend to keep gravitating towards the performance currency, and what happens is, as you get more senior, the relationship currency is the more important currency,” she explains.
Within my own organization, which was initially targeted at mid-career executives, it’s often the Millennials who flock to events, footloose and fancy free, eager to learn and make connections. As women get older and take on more responsibilities both personally and professionally, it becomes harder to carve out the time. But that’s when strategic networking is actually most important. It’s when you really need those relationships with the industry leaders who can advocate for you.
But of course you don’t have to go to everything. For someone like me who juggles a million things and places a high premium on downtime, going to the trouble of dressing up and making the journey somewhere has to be worth it. There is nothing more frustrating than feeling like I’ve wasted precious time.
A friend and I once devised a set of criteria for social engagements: 1) Is this event good for my career? or 2) Will I get to spend time with close friends? or 3) Will there be husband material there?! Rule number 3 has since been replaced with “Is this for a good cause?” but the others still very much apply. Create your own system that allows you to be circumspect with your decisions and hone in on curated events and smaller gatherings such as dinners and talks, where you can better manage interactions.
While we’re on the subject, a few basic tips on how to network effectively. If you’re going to an event and are generally intimidated by large groups of people you don’t know, arrive early. It’s so much easier to connect and get acclimatized in a more intimate setting. If there’s someone you’re specifically trying to meet, do your research, e.g., have they posted an interesting tweet or achieved a career milestone that can be referenced as a conversation opener? Always send a follow up note within a couple of days of meeting. Sustain the relationship and check in every few months.
But networking isn’t just about making lots of great new buddies, it’s about making those relationships work for your career and your business. Last year, I was invited to a convening of some very high-level business executives in Los Angeles. Within minutes of meeting one another, the men were effortlessly transacting, making deals and exchanging cards. For the women, the interactions were a little different. It was more about relationship building and gaining trust. There was an etiquette to it. And while those polite value systems definitely have their place, women shouldn’t be afraid of making business asks of friends and colleagues. We are great at being sociable and at forging strong relationships but often not as good at leveraging them.
Networking is not a dirty word. It’s the cornerstone of business. Build your network, sustain your network and leverage your network and you’ll go far.
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