I know, you’re thinking “OK, Nataly, why don’t you tell us how you really feel about networking?”
But in all seriousness, I feel that networking is a task that we — and yes, by this huge generalization, I mean we = women — overlook most often and don’t do enough of in our careers, businesses, and life in general. I know this from my personal experiences and from those of my female colleagues and friends. I am sure there are plenty of reasons for it, but this post isn’t about that. It is about what I’ve learned about networking and my desire to encourage you to make it a regular part of our routine, whatever your career or business might be. Believe me when I say it’s really good for you.
My 5 golden rules of networking:
Rule #1: If you want to succeed in your business, your career, or your life, you MUST network.
My first job out of college was for a huge consulting firm famous for the way it invested in training its business analysts. They put us through tons of training — financial analysis, client management, presentation skills, and much more — but we were never taught about networking. My next job was in strategy for a small company, where I had a great boss who taught me about business, running companies, and sales and marketing — but I don’t remember him saying anything about networking. When I took a job in venture capital my boss told me that to find new deals I had to network, but that was it. In my 10+ year career, no-one ever taught me about networking but I so much wish someone had.
I learned the importance of networking only when I decided to start my own company (Work It, Mom!, of course). My partner, Victoria, and I were introduced by someone I worked with and after a year of business lunches we decided to start a company together. When it came time to find our great team of bloggers, I started reaching out to several whose personal blogs I liked and always asked if there were others they’d recommend. I have a great group of extremely sharp and experienced people to whom I go for advice about growing my own company and I’ve met them all through networking. Networking means connecting with people, creating relationships, and expanding the circle of people to whom you can go for advice, support, career direction, job leads, and answers to specific questions. I don’t know a single person successful person who doesn’t make networking part of their daily life.
Rule #2: The best time to network is when you don’t need anything.
I often hear people talk about needing to network for a new job or to raise money for their business. That’s fine but the best time to network is when you don’t need a new job or money for your business but when you just want to connect with different people and expand your circle of contacts and career/business relationships. I am going to go out on a ledge here (mostly because well, I haven’t dated in about 11 years!) and say it’s like dating — the less desperate you are the more likely you are to find a great guy (or gal!).
A few years into my venture capital gig I was on a panel with a few other investors. I really liked what one of them was saying so after the panel I came up to him and introduced myself. A few days later I emailed him and suggested that we get together for lunch and talk about deals we’re seeing. We did and fast-forward three years later, we’re now good professional friends and he is someone I go to for input and advice about growing a company. He has also introduced me to some great people and I am pretty sure that if I ever needed a job, he would help me.
Rule #3: Networking is like stock investing — you have to have a long-term view instead of seeking short-term benefits.
Something I do pretty regularly is reach out to reporter and bloggers who write on topics related to working women and careers. I send them a brief email introducing myself and Work It, Mom!, explaining a bit about what we do here, and asking them to share any input or feedback they might have as well as contribute to our community. I haven’t kept exact numbers, but I’d say about 50% of my emails get answered and about 20% result in my connecting on the phone with the particular reporter or blogger to talk about what they are doing and how we could work together.
Several months back I reached out to Dory Devlin, who was writing for Yahoo about technology and family. She replied, we scheduled a call, and had a lovely conversation. We kept in touch over the following months and then Dory became the editor for Yahoo’s new site for women called Shine. She edits the Work and Money area and has kindly linked to one of my blog posts already and has plans to feature more content from Work It, Mom!. This wasn’t even a possibility when we first talked and I never asked Dory to feature us or write about us. I networked, I created a professional relationship, and Work It, Mom! is (hopefully!) going to benefit with some links and traffic from a big new site.
Don’t have an agenda when you start to network with someone other than connecting with them and talking about what you might have in common. You’re creating a relationship, not putting in an order at a restaurant. (I need to stop with the analogies, I know.)
Rule #4: To be great at networking you need to offer more than you ask for.
This is one of the most important things I’ve learned about networking and I can’t emphasize it enough. To be really great at networking, to have great connections, people to whom you can go for help and advice, you need to offer more to them than you get from them. Do you know someone they will benefit from knowing? Ask if they’d like an introduction. Do you know of a great resource or see an article that might be of interest? Send them the link. Do you have an idea to help someone with their business, career, or life issue? Take the initiative and share your thoughts. Be proactive about offering help and suggestions without being overbearing with your point of view.
I’ve recently met a wonderful woman who is starting a company. I love the concept for it and have had a few ideas/suggestions/resources that I’ve suggested to her since we first met. I’ve also introduced her to one of my mentors because I believe they will like meeting each other. I don’t get anything in return and I don’t expect anything in return — but she has followed up with some great suggestions for me and for Work It, Mom! and has become someone I really enjoy talking with and bouncing off ideas about our businesses. Offer more than what you ask for and you might get so much in return.
Rule #5: If you think you’re too shy/too reserved/too intimidated to network, you’re wrong.
I think one of the most common misconceptions about networking is that you have to be outgoing to do it. I often see tips to help you overcome your shyness when you’re at a party or a conference and you need to come up to strangers and strike up a conversation. That’s all good and well, but only a tiny bit of networking involves approaching strangers in a social setting.
More often, you meet people through work or common contacts and networking is about following up with them and being proactive about creating a professional relationship rather than approaching them out of the blue. A lot of initial networking is often done via email, which is a lot easier as a communication medium if you tend to be on the reserved side.
I think some of the intimidation networking causes is because of the word itself –but think of it as just connecting with people who have something in common with you. Emailing a colleague from a different department or someone you met at a conference to connect over a business lunch isn’t much different than inviting a mom you met at a playground for a playdate. (And if you find that intimidating, I think you should just grow up.)
Do you network actively or is this something you find intimidating? Has networking helped your career or business? Do you have any other tips for networking? Sound off in the comments!