Networking creates cross-business channels to share ideas and expertise to support others in succeeding, whether it be in an individual’s own career or for the success of a company. For entrepreneurs it contributes to the stability and growth of businesses and encourages innovation, best practice and resourcefulness.
So, networking sounds like a no-brainer right? However, it’s easier said than done for many people and it involves much more than just swapping a business card.
According to a study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co, women have fewer ties than men to colleagues and cohorts both at work and outside. The study found that 10 per cent of female senior executives admitted to having four or more executives supporting them to advance their careers, whereas this figure stood at 17 per cent for male senior executives. However, over half of the senior women questioned said they believe higher-level sponsorship to be extremely important in setting them on a path to success. This figure was 42 per cent for the men in senior roles that were questioned.
Like exercising, networking is something that you know you must do but don’t always get around to. However, after you have done it you feel better for it. Networking and making the most of professional connections can be challenging for women who want to maximise their time at work, but also make it home for dinner and family time.
Whether you decide to network formally or informally, networking provides inclusive places for female professionals to come together, compare notes and support women thinking about taking the entrepreneurial plunge. This does not just happen over formal dinners or through joining a pricey women’s association.
Founder of WeAreTheCity Vanessa Vallely attributes most of her career advancements to networking. Professional relationships have created opportunities for Vallely to share her career challenges and aspirations with other women who have similar mindsets and ambitions.
The odd one out
When working in a male dominated industry, seeming like the odd one out is a feeling that most women in technology have felt at least once before. However, this can also be the case when faced with a room full of women. Not everyone finds networking to be an exciting opportunity to meet new people - some dread the experience and assume that everyone in the room already knows each other well.
Vallely said: ‘Despite reaching a senior role in finance, I really struggled with the networking concept. I didn’t like the feeling of walking into a room and introducing myself to a stranger. I was not sure what my story was, would I be interesting, what was the value that I was bringing to the conversation? I also questioned why I would bother to network outside of work. How naive was I?
‘Back in 2008, when I was building WeAreTheCity, I had to network in order to gather information for our networking directory on the website. The first networking event I went to, I actually walked in and walked out. I did that three times before I plucked up the courage to actually go and talk to someone. After a year of breaking my own comfort zones, I was hooked. Nowadays, I love networking, mostly because I like meeting new people and getting to know them.’
She continued: ‘I am also someone who likes to help individuals, so I often find myself fishing for ways to help should they need a connection or assistance achieving something. I always leave a networking event with a long list of to-dos which I ensure I follow up over the next two days. I get an extreme amount of pleasure out of helping and connecting others.
‘The whole value of networking is to meet different people and build relationships. Some people do it because they want to understand the experiences of others and learn, some people do it because it opens up windows of opportunity for them. The more people you know, the easier it is for you to get help if you need it.’
The fear of meeting new people and feeling like the odd one out is not the only worry to cross women’s minds when they think about networking. Many fear that the conversations that take place during networking opportunities make them look like they are bragging or are inappropriately seeking a favour or guidance.
Vallely explained: ‘A number of individuals I meet state they have never sat down and actually written down how they introduce themselves. More often than not, when meeting someone for the first time we tend to give minimal information as there is either a hesitancy to give away more information or because we feel uncomfortable doing so.
‘A powerful intro is one that just rolls off the tongue and should include key points about you as an individual (e.g. name, where you work, what you do).’
She advised: ‘Try to explain what you actually do in a way that is easy to understand (remember not everyone is in your industry). As an example, “I work in business management supporting a team of executives. One of my main responsibilities is to condense long reports into short management summaries which enable the executive team to make informed decisions.” In this example, you have explained what you do and the outcome. Just remember to give a little context and don’t use too many acronyms.’
Finding a mentor
Putting your networking fears aside can help to boost your career in several ways, including finding a mentor to support you along the way. Mentoring is essential to supporting women in corporates or entrepreneurs to build skills, expand their existing networks and to find new markets.
‘None of us are born knowing it all, therefore mentors are essential,’ said Vallely. ‘Before approaching a mentor, work out what you feel you need to learn from the individual. Approach the prospective mentor and ensure they know that you have given the relationship some thought (e.g. why them - what skills have they demonstrated that made you want to choose them as a prospective mentor). Make sure you pitch what you feel you need from the relationship, how much of their time you require (e.g. 30,minute coffee once a month) and for how long (e.g. over a six-month period). Also share how you feel you will measure progress.
‘Remember you drive this relationship, which entails organising the meeting and ensuring that you complete any actions in between sessions. Other tips include, multiple mentors, why have one when you can have three? This is exceptionally useful if you feel there are a number of areas where you need help. Also consider using technology to connect with your mentors. Face-to-face is great, but if your mentors are senior, they may have limited time or prefer calls / skype.’
You could join a women’s association, attend a networking evening, sign up for a seminar or commit to one coffee meeting with a new connection every month - whatever you decide to do, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to share your story so far. You never know whom you might meet and where one simple conversation could lead.
The biggest hurdle to crack networking is to make time for it. Whether you set yourself the goal of attending one networking event a month or being more deliberate about the process by setting up Outlook alerts reminding you to touch base with certain individuals, it is imperative that the women of the tech industry create connections and support each other.
Vallely advised: ‘There are lots of networking groups, but it is important to do a search and find the right networking group for you. It is best to be selective about where you are going and make sure that you are going to learn something and meet like-minded individuals who may share the same job or same industry.
‘Networking can be daunting, therefore if you are nervous about going to an event on your own, invite a friend, however remember not to stay together all night as that will be a missed opportunity for both of you to meet new people. Remember that networking is as much about listening as about talking. It is as much about giving, as it is about receiving.’
She added: ‘You should always follow up with individuals you have met within 48 hours and if you have committed to doing something as part of that meeting (e.g. sending an email or connection), then ensure you do it!
‘Networking is not about going and collecting hundreds of business cards, but about having a few really good conversations that are both meaningful and engaging and have the potential to grow in the future. It is important to share your network and to introduce people that you know to other individuals, that way you will continue to grow your network through others. This is especially important if you are seeking career guidance, a new job, business contacts or mentors.
‘It is important to get to know individuals within your network and prove your reliability and credibility prior to asking them to recommend or connect you to anyone. Remember you are building a relationship, not just collecting a business card!’