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ImageWhen it comes to networking, women seem to struggle more than men. Rebecca Hourston offers some valuable tips on how to make networking profitable and fun.

Networking often feels just that – way too much like hard work. Slimy, pushy, insincere, manipulative… many women cringe at the very idea of networking.

So we tend to put it off, naively assuming – unlike male colleagues – that doing a good job is enough to get us noticed (it isn't), or that the task in hand is more urgent than building a great network (it is – but is it more important?) Yet people with strong networks enjoy greater career satisfaction, more promotions, and higher pay (according to a 1990 study by Dreher and Ash).

Redefining Networking

Taking the 'work' out of networking starts with overhauling how you approach it. You need to redefine it on three levels: how you think about networking, how you leverage your network, and the way you do networking.

1. Redefine how you think about networking.

There is a weird discrepancy between our private and professional lives when it comes to networking. In your social life, things that you would never label 'networking' happen all the time: your neighbour recommends a plumber, your friend throws a birthday party, the mum at the school gates puts you in touch with another frustrated soul whose child, like yours, will eat nothing but jam sandwiches.

In your professional life, networking gets built up as a big deal. Yet just as in your social life, it is, quite simply, about meeting and connecting with people who you didn't already know, thereby finding the people you need and enabling others to find you.

Stephen D'Souza, author of 'Brilliant Networking', says networking is "the art of building reciprocal relationships that help individuals and the community as a whole to achieve their goals".

For Dr Samantha Collins of Aspire, increasing your network is about increasing your sphere of influence and ability to get things done or changed. "I believe in having a network (I like 'peer group' better) over and above where you are at. I'm currently working on having both Michelle Obama and Oprah in my network – wish me luck!" she says.

In your professional life, networking gets built up as a big deal. Yet just as in your social life, it is, quite simply, about meeting and connecting with people who you didn't already know, thereby finding the people you need and enabling others to find you.

Samantha has redefined for herself how to go about getting influential people like this in her network. "The key is for me to be 'attractive' enough so they will seek me out and not the other way around. If I try to seek them out, I join a very long queue. For me, that all comes down to having a unique brand that attracts like-minded people who also want to make a difference for women."

But you get to define this activity we call networking. More than the activity of 'doing networking', focus on ending up with a 'success network' – a wealth of great contacts who might come in handy one day. Take the mindset that if you bother to develop a better network, you will always have someone to call when you have a problem, need advice, or are wondering how to solve an issue.

If the word itself is a turn-off, try a simple terminology switch: 'relationship-building', 'growing my contacts', 'meeting new people', or 'staying in touch'.

Successful entrepreneur Julia Langkraehr, who has built multi-million pound businesses and is known by her colleagues as 'The Queen of Networking', thinks of it as 'net-giving'.

"My philosophy is that it's all about giving. If you're seen just as a taker, no-one wants to talk to you. You have to contribute, whether to the conversation, by taking a leadership role or by giving something back without strings to the people in your network. Always help others if you can, without expecting anything in return. It's not just about 'what goes around comes around' – it's also a great way of building goodwill, a good reputation and making you feel great about yourself!"

Julia founded and is currently Board Director for Retail Profile Europe Ltd, a pioneering company that specializes in leasing unique and temporary retail space across Europe and Russia. Widely recognized by her peers as a 'super-connector', she has an expansive and varied network across three continents, is an integral figure in the Entrepreneurs' Organization (a global non-profit network for entrepreneurs who turn over multi-million pound businesses) and a long-standing member of The Super Club, a network of high achieving entrepreneurs which represents some of the UK's most inspirational growing businesses.

Even with such a track record, "I don't like to call it networking," she says. "Really I'm just a good relator and a good conversationalist."

"When I meet someone, I'm always trying to learn from their life experiences. I try to collect in my head all of that person's best attributes by steering the conversation towards their stories. The person feels like I connected to them because I really did."

In other words, unapologetically use your natural feminine strengths of empathy and connection.

At hardcore networking events, Julia can't bear the ego-feed of 'what do you do / what do I do', and advises talking about topics instead. "Have topics that you feel comfortable talking about that you know others will also feel confident and comfortable talking about. Take a topical event like the ash cloud and the stories about who's been delayed soon come out."

"You'll walk away from the event thinking you learnt so much and met some great people with great stories, rather than thinking how well you networked," she continues. "But you will have built better quality relationships that will potentially be more valuable to you down the line as a result."

So, how would you redefine how you think about networking?

2. Redefine how you leverage your network.

The danger for women is that, having focused on building great relationships, it can just stop there. While male colleagues tend not to hold back from drawing on their network and making requests of it, women can shy away from this. Yet people like it when you ask for something back – especially if you've gained credibility and given them something first.

In their 2007 Harvard Business Review article 'How Leaders Create and Use Networks', INSEAD Professor Herminia Ibarra and her colleague Mark Hunter stress the importance of calling on your network and actively using it. "A network lives and thrives only when it is used. A good way to begin is to make a simple request or take the initiative to connect two people who would benefit from meeting each other. Doing something – anything – gets the ball rolling and builds confidence that one does, in fact, have something to contribute."

Strategic Networking

It is key always to keep in mind the bigger picture of what you want from your networking. What do you want to achieve in your career in the next year and beyond? Who are the people or organisations – the 'ecosystem' – that need to be in your network to support you to achieve it? Where are the gaps in your network and how might you close them?

Ibarra and Hunter identify three types of networks – operational (people who impact how your current work is done), personal (people in your professional associations, alumni groups, clubs and personal-interest communities who can widen your perspective) and strategic (people outside your day to day role who can help you determine future priorities and how your role fits into the bigger picture). They point out that managers who think they are adept at networking are often operating only at an operational or personal level, and conclude that the best leaders need to learn to employ their networks for strategic purposes too.

As part of thinking more strategically about network-building, women would be wise to build greater breadth in their networks.

Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston and Rebecca Craske's research published in the McKinsey Quarterly 2008 found that "men tend to build broader, shallower networks than women do and…the networks of men give them a wider range of resources for gaining knowledge and professional opportunities. Our experience with hundreds of women at McKinsey offers additional evidence that women's networks tend to be narrower but deeper than men's."

In other words, without losing the advantage of the depth in relationships that you will create as a woman, you also need to ensure you are building a wide enough variety of relevant contacts.

What do you want to achieve in your career in the next year and beyond? Who are the people or organisations – the 'ecosystem' – that need to be in your network to support you to achieve it? Where are the gaps in your network and how might you close them?

Strategically broadening your internal network is especially important if you work for a large organization, where it's easy to get stuck on building relationships only with those in your direct area of work. Linking up with those beyond your department provides fresh perspective, new ideas, and might even come in handy in future years if you are promoted or transferred to another area of the business.

So, how would you redefine how you leverage your network?

3. Redefine the way you do networking.

There is never enough time, and the lure of completing a tangible, measurable task is always going to battle with the intangible nature of networking, the payback of which may be measurable only weeks, months, or even years down the line – or never.

Diarize time for networking. It might be a weekly half an hour for phone calls to people you've met recently; it might be a fortnightly coffee with someone from a different part of the organization; it might be external events and conferences – whatever it is, its purpose is to expand your contacts and remind yourself of the bigger picture of what you're here to do. Plan networking as a strategic career development activity with time in the working day allocated accordingly – get your manager's buy-in to it as a personal development goal. If the golf and rugby events that male colleagues arrange are not for you, find others who feel the same way and create some alternatives.

Know your industry associations, and take a leadership position within one, whether as a sponsor, speaker, chair or committee member. Julia Langkraehr has found that taking a lead within the Entrepreneurs' Organization has given her great access to an ever-widening network of entrepreneurs, to the point where she has become a renowned 'go-to' person for connecting up entrepreneurs.

Virtual networking has played a significant role in enabling Julia to manage her networks across cultures and time zones. "Online networking is not a nice-to-do anymore; it's really important, particularly if key people for your network happen to be in a different country," she advises. "Wordsmith your LinkedIn profile – it's your electronic business card." People will Google you – make sure you're managing what they see.

As INSEAD's Ibarra and Hunter rightly observe, "building a leadership network is less a matter of skill than of will". You have to get out there and take action. And that action might look different to what you have previously considered to count as networking.

Most of all, be authentic and real in the way you network so that the relationships you build are meaningful and strong. The McKinsey Quarterly networking researchers commented how "over and over, we heard, 'Make it personal,' in the sense that others will get along with you more easily if they see your human side."

Julia Langkraehr sums it up well: "I try to be like I am in both business and personal situations – whether I'm going to a friend's dinner party or an Institute of Directors event, I approach it in the same way".

So, how would you redefine the way you do networking?

Networking takes commitment, communication, time and effort to make it successful. But if you redefine your approach to it, at least it no longer need feel like such hard work.

Rebecca Hourston grew up in Kenya. Today, she is a Director at Aspire, an internationally-recognized, award-winning leader in executive coaching, leadership development, consultancy, events and research related to women as leaders. Access Aspire's must-know success secrets for women leaders. Sister organization, The Aspire Foundation is an innovative mentoring program working to improve the lives of women and girls in Africa and beyond. Learn more about being a mentor (a no-cost, low commitment way to make a difference) or mentee (gain invaluable expertise from senior corporate business people).
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