As a part of gender diversity initiatives we  often hold Focus Group Discussions in my organization to understand the needs of women managers. One item that always tops the list of desirable traits is the ability to network. Women rue the fact they are poor at networking and feel that the men get unjustified benefits for what is basically socializing. But when pushed the general responses to networking range as follows:

“I don’t like meeting unknown people and exchanging cards”/ “I have to get home as fast as possible” / “Every time he goes to smoke he comes back with news about the whole group!, I wish I smoked”/ “I don’t drink and don’t like to hang around”/ “Let’s have a ladies night out.” / “Is it even necessary?”

So the problems cover personality types, attitude towards time, prioritization, lack of comfort etc.

To answer the last question (“Is it even necessary?”) first, it is a personal choice however it is definitely an advantage. Networking is important because all of us work in a very connected world. It is well nigh impossible to achieve anything without working with other people. In such a scenario anyone who knows people and can forge relationships has a distinctive advantage. It increases their ability to collaborate. Also in today’s information-centric world one needs to be able to connect with many people to stay updated about happenings within the department, business or industry. If you are looking for a job change or assignments this becomes even more critical since a lot of positions get filled on referral basis.

Here are a few pointers for women (and men) to approach networking:

  1. First, women managers (and men) need to acknowledge the need for networking and own it as a part of being a professional. To deny its importance and to desire it at the same time is not useful. To see it as an unfair advantage and somehow wrong is also not helpful.
  2. You need to have clear goals – what do you want from networking? For example, getting optimal response from peers in other departments with whom you run projects; being in the consideration set of senior leaders for growth opportunities and better industry exposure could be some goals. Once the goals are identified it is easier to decide whom to network with. Also it becomes easier to prioritize for example in case of conflict one would prioritize a dinner with the senior leaders of the company over a team outing.
  3.  Most organizations create multiple formal opportunities for networking. There are celebration dinners, R&R events, Leadership Group meetings, offsite, social get together etc. Often, people skip attending the same or even if they attend they stick to their familiar groups thereby losing an opportunity to get to know people with whom one doesn’t connect in day today life.
  4.  You need to find the occasion and venue that suit you. One size does not fit all and there is no universal solution. If you don’t want to go for drink and dinner, can you go for lunch? Lunch in your own cafeteria with the right person/people is not an inferior networking opportunity. In fact a colleague recently told me that he is able to understand his business and the group much better simply by joining diverse groups at their lunch tables. As much networking happens over cups of tea and coffee as it does over cigarettes and with lesser damage to one’s health. There are umpteen options like travelling together, dropping in to say hello etc. The point is being creative.
  5.  This is especially for women. It has been found in research studies that women network better with women and all women should use this opportunity. However, given the gender skew in organizations restricting oneself to networking with women would be severely limiting.
  6.  While you are goal oriented about your networking, don’t be selfish. If you connect with people only when you have a need them you will lose credibility.
  7.  Networking is not only about connecting through conversation. If you are willing to step up and help people in their work and participate in their success you will create much closer bonds which will persist. Be willing to give as much as you are willing to take.
  8.  You need to use your networks. Not only do women hesitate to network they also hesitate to reach out to their network and ask for help. It is important to seek help when required. If you want to be considered for a position in another department and know the head of department or somebody influential, step up and show your interest. If you want to know of the best practices in another organization and know your counterpart through attending industry networks, make the call and ask. Networking is not of much use if you hesitate to use it.

So ladies, go forth and network, you have nothing to lose but your hesitation!


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