Women with thriving careers generally have one important thing in common: they have built strong networks. If you just groaned or scrunched up your nose at the thought of networking, don’t stress. Networking sometimes gets a bad rap for being a painful and ponderous endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be; in fact, it shouldn’t be. When you approach it strategically, in a way that feels natural to you, networking takes on a momentum of its own. Before you know it, you’ve cultivated a rich, robust network that supports and strengthens your career efforts and opens doors to new opportunities.
Successful networking is all about building relationships, but you can’t build relationships with others until you have a healthy relationship with yourself. This is where self-work comes in.
Look inward and ask yourself these basic questions to make sure you are clear on who you are before you start developing your networking strategy:
With this insight, you can start making decisions about what type of networking is right for you.
For example, if you’re an extrovert, you might thoroughly enjoy going to big in-person events; if you’re more introverted, you might instead choose to master networking through Zoom meetings.
Your age and stage of life can make a difference, too. When I had a baby at home, I prioritized parenting and adapted my networking schedule accordingly. Most of my connections in those days were done online. Fast-forward to today, and I’m back into the face-to-face networking scene and the groups I network with have changed as my agency has grown.
There is not a one-size-fits-all or “right” way to network. What feels right to you is right for you. Does the idea of putting on a suit to go to a formal business affair make you cringe? Then stick with more casual events and groups. You will be most effective at networking where you are most comfortable.
There’s one caveat here: this doesn’t mean you should never try something new. Always respect and be kind to yourself, but also be willing to push yourself beyond your comfort zone every now and then. Maybe there’s an event you wouldn’t typically go to, but you know there is the potential to make fantastic connections there. I remember an event where I felt my legs shake when I had to stand up and introduce myself (and I am a professional speaker!). I swallowed my fear, gave a strong introduction and was asked to speak at their next event.
Adjust your perspective, put on a smile and be open to the new experience. You may be surprised at how positive it turns out to be.
Now that you’ve got a firm grip on how to be true to yourself as you network, strategize. When you make the most of your time and efforts, you set yourself up for successful networking.
Research some groups to identify good opportunities for connecting. Online is a good place to start, but also dig deeper where you can. Ask anyone you know in a particular group what they love about the group. Ask them to share one of their favorite networking stories. Find out what type of professionals are typically in the room, how the group interacts with one another (the format), how often they meet and what level of commitment is expected. I always ask about the values of the group.
Once you find a group you’re interested in, try out a meeting or two before you commit to a membership (if membership is required). Most organizations are happy to host guests, especially those who contribute to the group dynamic. How do you know whether a group is right for you? Do a gut check once you get home after an event or turn off your computer after a meeting. Do you feel nourished or drained? Are you looking forward to the next encounter with excitement or apprehension?
Whether you’re at a networking event or on a follow-up call with a new contact, be cognizant of your time. Have your elevator pitch down pat so you can explain what you do succinctly. Set boundaries for how long you’ll spend in any one conversation. If a conversation is productive, then you can decide how long to allow it to continue. This also ensures you’re networking smarter, not harder, and not burning out early on.
The point of networking is to build relationships, not transactions. And relationships take time. You get out what you put in. Go into every conversation ready to listen, learn and serve. Think about how you can help others, whether that is making a connection, sharing a resource or offering helpful advice.
My favorite question to ask is, “what is one thing I can do for you?”. I also love being ready to answer that when someone asks me that question in return. Never assume someone is super alert and fully understands what they can do for you and your company. If there is something you want (a connection, referral or tip) sometimes, you have to spell it out. Be clear, be kind.
If you ever start feeling like you’re the “smartest kid in the class,” it may be time to look for a new group. You want to always be learning and finding inspiration from others. It’s great to share your own insights, but you need to get something back, too. Win-win is a must with any networking. If things aren’t feeling worthwhile, it’s ok to break up and see other people.
Just because you’re not actively involved in a conversation doesn’t mean the networking stops. Social media is a great tool to remind people you’re out there. When I make connections at live events (Zoom or IRL) I make LinkedIn connections to get them into my virtual Rolodex. To keep the love alive, write something compelling that helps establish you as an authority in your field (in the word authority is the word author, after all!) Share content — yours or anything that aligns with your values (and tag people to credit if you share others’ content or quotes) — to educate, inform and keep your contacts tuned in to you.
Building a powerful network doesn’t have to be difficult. Just remember: Whether in-person, virtual or social, your networking efforts should always be true to you.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Lorrie Thomas Ross is a transformational marketing guide. She is the CEO of Web Marketing Therapy Inc., a marketing agency that diagnoses, prescribes, and guides healthy, sustainable marketing solutions and Wild Web Women, coaching and marketing support to help digital women grow gorgeously. She loves helping leaders lead themselves...unapologetically.