Most of us are looking to improve our networking skills and gain more tangible results. Professional women often struggle with leveraging the networks they work so hard to build and maintain. Below are three strategies that can help you get more from your networking.
1. Build your network UP
Many women seem reluctant to reach out to their “superiors,” as if they are not sure they are worthy of traveling in those circles. Yet developing relationships with people that are ahead of you on the career curve is crucial. These individuals can serve as mentors and sponsors, and give you access to opportunities you might otherwise miss. I get it—it can be more comfortable to continue networking with your peers, but that may not get you the contacts, exposure and experiences you need. Remember, comfortable is not always a good thing—and our male colleagues generally understand this. Men seem more likely to take the risk of reaching out to professionals who are further along or higher up than they are.
I challenge you to take a long, hard look at your network. Are you adding contacts just laterally, or are you networking up? Identify several individuals that you’d like to have as mentors and advocates, and then define a strategy for building a relationship with them. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If they don’t seem interested in connecting, move on to someone else who is.
2. Focus on credibility, not visibility
Networking is a great way for professional women to meet people, build relationships, find opportunities and expand their reputations. So is there really too much of a good thing? When it comes to networking, the answer is definitely yes.
Anyone can be visible—if you are in enough places often enough, people will begin to recognize you, and your name will become known. Being credible, however, is a higher level of recognition, where your expertise, integrity and influence develop into a positive reputation.
So how can you create the right kind of visibility while developing credibility?
Participate only in relevant organizations and events.
Focus your participation on things that make sense for your career and business, rather than trying to be in as many places as possible.
Focus on leadership roles rather than membership.
You will get much more out of an organization if you volunteer for a committee or board, rather than simply participating as a member. It is better to single yourself out as a leader in one organization than to merely be a member of several.
Develop relationships, not contacts.
Simply meeting a large number of people through networking is not effective. If many people have heard of you and perhaps even met you once or twice, this helps your visibility. If a smaller number of people personally know you, can speak to your unique capabilities, and will serve as an advocate for you, this builds your credibility. Focus on developing meaningful relationships and trust with key individuals.
3. Stop waiting for an invitation
Picture this scenario: Co-workers Bob, Jack and Mario are heading to lunch when they see Susan walking out of the conference room. When she asks where they’re going, they simply say “We’re going to eat at the new BBQ restaurant on the corner.” Susan replies that her husband told her that the food there is great, and comments how hungry she is. The guys nod and smile, and then get on the elevator, leaving Susan behind.
Was this a deliberate attempt to exclude Susan, perhaps because she’s a woman? Or was it simply a failure to include Susan, perhaps because her colleagues didn’t realize she wanted to join them? In many cases, men don’t understand that their female colleagues are waiting for an invitation. They are not intentionally leaving us out, they just assume that if you want to be included you’ll ask—the way that men do.
My advice is to stop waiting for an invitation. If you want to go to lunch, or attend a conference, or lead a meeting, or be considered for a board position, or be included in a client dinner, ask! They might say no, but they will probably say yes.
I also recommend that you pay it forward. Look for colleagues—especially women—that aren’t being included, and when appropriate invite them along. I firmly believe that a network is only successful when it is inclusive. That means that sometimes you have to make sure people know that you want to be included, and other times it means that you should extend the invitation to them!