Have you ever been to a leadership conference or listened to some guru on leadership speak and they tell you must network? Your shoulders slump forward and you think not again.
How many of us don’t want to spend time networking yet we have been told so many times we have to spend time pressing the flesh to get ahead, we believe it must be true.
Some people are natural networkers. However, networking for many of us isn’t natural. We often feel awkward trying to join a conversation. There is an uneasy feeling that what you do is being quickly accessed to identify if you are of value. You know if you are not because people ease themselves into someone else’s conversation leaving you to quietly meld into the background of insignificance.
Interestingly research in a Harvard Business Review article states that professional networking actually makes people feel dirty unless they have power. It’s a strange paradox because supposedly if you don’t network effectively you won’t make the connections to get the power to feel comfortable with networking.
What, however, is effective networking? How much time should we spend greasing palms? Is there a gender differential?
The research from Kellogg School of Management shows there are significant differences about how men and women network. Men have broad shallow networks. They network with clear goals, have little small talk and know straight away if you are useful. Conversely, women have smaller deeper long-term relationships based on trust.
Interestingly 77% of the highest achieving women have strong ties with an inner circle of only two or three other women.
The same research highlighted that women who tried to network like men to get ahead actually did worse. That is because they are missing one crucial ingredient, a close inner circle of women which provides critical information on job and career opportunities. Women who have such an inner circle are three times more likely to get a better job than those women who do not have that support system.
Women also prefer not to network after work for two primary reasons. Firstly, they need to get home for family responsibilities and secondly, they don’t want any opportunities to give anyone an inappropriate impression.
The research sounds somewhat contradictory. On one hand, you are being told you need to network on the other hand if I am a woman it is better to have a smaller inner circle of women that I trust. What to do and what to believe?
I entered the corporate world after a nursing career, with no corporate contacts, no old school networks or friends that could give me a leg up. Over time I became the Director of HR for a number of companies followed by establishing my own consulting business. I also came with a view, like the research says it made me feel dirty somehow and I really did not like the idea of networking as such.
On reflection what served me well was engaging with people and treating them with respect irrespective of my position of influence at networking events.
Most inner networks are developed when people want to help you because they have connected with you in some way irrespective if they are male or female. People don’t often connect if they think the only reason you are talking to them is that you want something from them.
The research by Dr Fiona Kerr demonstrates that connecting with people, and making eye contact actually builds physical pathways in our brains that are not created by written or visual technology. It is called a neural calling card. One of the best ways is to connect with someone is face to face and then follow up by the use of technology.
On reflection what has been useful for me has been:
- At a networking occasion instead of thinking who may be valuable to me, I actively engage in wanting to learn about the other person. It is a great way of building rapport and seeing the world from a different perspective.
- I actively consider if there is anyone that I may be able to help, provide a contact or information that may be useful with no expectation of a quid pro quo. I did that even when I was in a position of significant influence.
- If I say I will email or call, I keep my promises even if there is nothing in it for me because I know how it feels when people don’t.
Although time is valuable, and it is important to make conscious decisions about where best to spend your time believe in serendipity.
- Actively put yourself in a position where serendipity can happen. Find different people to have a conversation with.
- Go to different events that are not necessarily linked to your profession.
People have long memories and they remember how you made them feel. Again, Dr Fiona Kerr research demonstrates that when we connect with someone, we get an injection of positive chemicals which our brain remembers as a part of the neural calling card. It is therefore important to create positive experiences.
- Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself. You know how you feel when someone scanning the room while you’re trying to have a conversation.
- If people want to give you the flick for someone more important let them go fast. Don’t create a negative neural calling card. Plus, your time is just as valuable irrespective of where you fit in the pecking order.
Have no expectations of making a meaningful connection and be delighted when you do.