Last week, I had the honour of speaking at an International Women’s Day event with the theme “Choose to Challenge”.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the kind of people who start networking conversations with me during and after events. Even at an event focused on women, this pattern held true: a surprising number of the people who talked to me were men.
I am more than happy to chat and explore relationships with people no matter their gender/sex. If we want to achieve true gender parity, I think it’s time for us to challenge the networking status quo and get more women involved in networking.
Having worked in sport, hospitality, advertising to now aerospace and defence, I’ve experienced networking in a wide range of industries, and I’ve picked up tips along the way that have worked in all of them. Here are my top ten:
1. Forget the myths
There are several common myths out there that might be putting you off networking. Do you believe any of these?
Networking is manipulative and insincere.
Networking is all about playing politics to get ahead.
Networking should come second to “real work”.
Networking is about having the most contacts.
Networking is only for extroverts.
Don’t fall for these – in my experience, not one of them is true.
2. Map your network
Write your name in the middle of a piece of paper. Then write your closest contacts around it, and your more distant contacts further out. Around the outside, write the names of people you’d like to have connections with.
Now look at the patterns. Who knows people you want to connect with? Are your close connections limited by function or location? Are your contacts all the same kind of people? Is your network outdated? What kind of relationships do you have with your contacts?
3. Think resources
Once you’ve worked out the strengths and weaknesses of your network, use that insight to build connections strategically.
What resources do you need to grow your career, and who in your network has them? What resources do you need that nobody in your network has? What will you need in the future?
4. Find a mentor
Mentoring is especially important for women in male-dominated fields like engineering. A mentor can help you learn the ropes of the industry, introduce you to key people and tell you about meetups and schemes you might otherwise have missed.
If you don’t currently have a job or internship, try looking for a mentor on social media. Pick someone who matches your demographic as closely as possible – if you have other marginalised identities besides being a woman, you’ll want someone in your corner who understands the specific issues people from your background face.
5. Be patient
You aren’t going to become the queen of networking overnight, so don’t rush. Just be consistent and spend a few minutes a day building up your contacts. A LinkedIn survey found nine minutes per day is all it takes to see a big improvement in the quality and size of your LinkedIn network.
Building up contacts isn’t the only thing that takes time; it also takes time to develop good networking skills. Your first attempts are likely to be awkward. Don’t assume you’re a bad networker and give up – assume you’re a perfectly normal beginner and start learning.
Take notes on what works for you and what doesn’t. Ask your superiors and colleagues directly for networking tips. Seek advice and feedback from others on your networking style, and make them feel heard and appreciated when they give it.
6. Get online
Especially at present, networking doesn’t have to mean going to events and meetups. You’ll want to get there eventually, but train your networking muscles by joining industry forums and social networks first.
Make sure the social media accounts you use for networking have your real name, a photo of you, and a short bio. Start following people in your industry (but don’t push them to follow back – it’s bad manners) and join in the conversation. Check out hashtags like #WomenInTech on Twitter.
Ask your coworkers about industry Facebook groups you can join. Many of them are closed or secret. Failing that, you can always just ask on Twitter.
7. Polish up your LinkedIn
LinkedIn isn’t the most fun social network to hang out on, but it’s probably the most useful for a professional woman, even if you’re still looking for your first job.
Make sure your profile is full of relevant achievements and details, sounds approachable and personable, and features a good-quality, professional-looking photo, not an Instagram selfie. (Sadly, that also means no cute animals. A true professional doesn’t rely on the fluffiness of her puppy to get people’s attention.)
8. Get business cards
While business cards should have gone the way of the floppy disc by now, they’re still surprisingly common, and people often ask for them at events. People are much more likely to remember they met you if you can hand them a tangible reminder.
There’s no need to spend a lot of time or money on this – just go for a clean, modern-looking design. Check out Moo.com for pre-made designs.
9. Be prepared
Meeting people you admire can do strange things to your brain. Don’t get stuck in an awkward silence because you can’t think of anything to say. Note down some conversation starters beforehand, and research your contact online, paying particular attention to anything you have in common. It’s all in the practice like any skill it can be learnt and opening up conversations is just another great skill to learn.
10. Follow up
At the end of a networking conversation, make a good last impression by saying goodbye properly. The next day, follow up to thank your new contact for their time and let them know you enjoyed the conversation. This will ensure they remember you for the right reasons.