Networking: The Most Important Thing Women Should Do for Their Careers -- But Aren't
Women tend to undersell their value and strengths. Time to make that stop!
Of all the lessons I learned early in my career, the ability to network strategically stands out as one of the most important -- and one I continue to find value in and practice to this day. In fact, I attribute much of my success as a businessperson and leader within my profession to networking.
The importance of networking was ingrained in me during my first job at Credit Lyonnais. My boss essentially took me under his wing and had me sit in his office while he fielded phone calls from all over the world.
After each a call, he’d ask me why I thought he wanted to talk to that person and what I thought the benefit of the call was. In this way, he taught me how to relentlessly network -- and why it was so important.
Given the integral career role networking has played for me, it pains me to see how underutilized it is among women. Although women are typically seen as more "social" than men overall, according to the 2018 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey, women actually network less than men.
And when women do network, they do so mostly with other women rather than men. I see this as a significant cause for concern for women as individuals and power players within their companies and industries.
So, what is preventing women from successfully networking?
According to a study by SAGE Publishing that appeared in the Journal of Human Relations, this problem is rooted in the fact that most women tend to fall victim to self-imposed barriers -- including gendered modesty, the tendency to undersell their value and strengths and reluctance to leverage their connections as a means to get ahead in their careers.
It’s time to push past these roadblocks and focus on the benefits -- or as I like to call it, the return on investment -- of networking. After all, this crucial skill is one that will continue to pay dividends throughout a woman's career.
To be successful, you must be intentional about the way you network. It’s not enough to simply be sociable if your goal is to have a seat at the table where your ideas can be heard. Instead, you must deliberately network.
Done right, networking lets women identify role models, find mentors and sponsors and expand their business opportunities. As they rise in their careers, they can also pay it forward by helping others coming up behind them.
Ready to get started? Here are several actionable tips to help jump-start your networking game:
Make it a priority.
I get it: networking can be tedious and awkward. But according to a joint study by the Adler Group and LinkedIn, 85 percent of jobs are filled through networking, which means this activity ultimately benefits us in the long term.
Importantly, networking isn’t just about landing a job at a different company. Face-to-face interactions within your current company are important to the trajectory of your career. In fact, as the Women in the Workplace report revealed, “Women get less access to senior leaders than men do. Yet employees who interact regularly with senior leaders are more likely to ask for and receive promotions, stay at their companies, and aspire to be leaders.”
One way to shed any negative thought patterns you may have about networking is to avoid a transactional approach. It’s not about “what can you do for me” -- it’s about creating relationships and genuine connections that are mutually interesting and beneficial.
Begin identifying commonalities: sports, alma maters, passions, favorite vacation destinations, business interests, which are the things deeper connections are built on. This is not “small talk.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
You’re going beyond surface-level conversations about the weather to find shared areas of interest to form a bond. Conversations like these have led to some of my strongest connections, and in some cases, have helped me develop lifelong friendships.
In addition to engaging in meaningful conversations, create impactful connections by proving your dedication to networking through action. During my second day at WebPT as its new CEO, I experienced a musculoskeletal issue. To complicate matters further, I’d committed to attend a major physical therapy conference, which was taking place the very next day.
Knowing that our customers were expecting to meet me, I made it a priority to go and fought through the pain. Word of my condition quickly spread at the conference, however, and in a fortuitous twist of fate, showed my colleagues that I was serious about my responsibilities as their CEO. That alone helped me build trusting relationships with them early on.
So, be genuine and dedicate yourself to the process; the business aspect will evolve naturally.
Share the wealth with your network.
I find that prioritizing networking and paying it forward to the connections you’ve made can make all the difference in the long-term. I do this through my mentoring.
For example, I never ignore a request from a previous employee, no matter how long it's been since we worked together. As a result, I’ve opened doors to new relationships and career opportunities for myself and helped others do the same -- which has been the most rewarding part for me.
At any given time, I formally and informally mentor up to a dozen women and men from all career levels. I’m passionate about sharing what I’ve learned through my career, namely the importance of networking. When it comes to time spent with my mentees, I spend most of it explaining how to network, whom to target and how to balance giving. Ideally, they, too, will be successful in making meaningful connections.
Finally, mentoring has allowed me to help women achieve top leadership positions, a goal that is more attainable if they are encouraged to intentionally network. Research from a Catalyst survey that appeared in the Harvard Business Review showed that men are less likely to recommend women to various board positions simply because those women don’t have enough female connections. To end this cycle, I use my mentoring role to get more people involved in networking.
Turn negatives into opportunities.
Changing your outlook on networking also requires you to see the opportunity in what you may have previously perceived as the negative aspects of the process.
For me, that means small talk: I myself try to avoid it at all costs. Instead, I focus on what I can learn from this person I'm talking to. You might use small talk as an icebreaker; but quickly move on: When you approach each interaction as a learning opportunity, you may discover a business tool that could bring greater efficiency to a routine at your workplace or knowledge of a new technology this person is working on that could disrupt your industry.
To identify the right questions to ask, do online research prior to meeting or reaching out. For example, I read a great interview with a fellow CEO prior to our meeting and discovered that we both loved Star Trek. I actually opened our first call with, “Why do you think Jean-Luc Picard is the greatest Star Trek captain, and what leadership advice did you get from him?”
She laughed, it broke the ice and we were off and running. Because I took the risk to connect with her on a human level, we began a genuine conversation that has since flourished and become a lasting business friendship.
Another tip is to let go of the fear of saying something “stupid” and thinking you have to have all the answers. This is something I see a lot of women struggle with, but the truth is, most everyone in the room is feeling this on some level -- no one is an expert on every subject.
Instead, examine the beauty of discussing an unfamiliar topic: It can be the thing that helps build a connection. I have found that when someone knows more about a subject than I do, I have the opportunity to learn something new and engage with that person in a more meaningful way by asking questions.
Determine your objectives.
Strategic networking also requires you to get clear and intentional about your goals before each event, so, 1) have an agenda; 2) know why you’re attending, whom you may want to talk to (and why), and what you’re going to talk about; and 3) formulate a plan.
I start a list before the event -- investing more time in advance of larger events. I list the people I want to meet, see or network with. Recently, I attended SaaStr Annual and made an effort to book one-on-one meetings with the people on my list, scheduling meetings in line with cocktail parties, mixers and other extracurricular activities where I might run into still other people I wouldn’t meet otherwise.
Once the event wraps, make an effort to follow up within 24 hours. Whether it’s a phone call, an email or a social media connection -- comments on a person's LinkedIn newsfeed are also effective -- post-event outreach is a great way to stay in touch and keep the relationship open for years to come.
Expand beyond your comfort zone.
Be willing to get a little uncomfortable. I don’t go to events to hang out with folks from my own company. Instead, I make it a point to mingle with as many new people as possible.
Often, I inquire around about different events people are attending and ask for an invitation if I find them interesting. Others may find this approach awkward, but I believe the only way to make positive change and achieve growth is to put yourself out there.
In sum, although we live in an age where we primarily communicate via email and social media, the majority of people still value face-to-face contact. In fact, according to a study conducted by Forbes Insights, 84 percent of those polled preferred in-person meetings because they build stronger business relationships, allow for more stimulating social interaction and foster more complex and deeper conversations.
Ultimately, the best way to network and overcome any negative associations with that task is to be genuinely interested in other people and to be an advocate for their success. Knowing how to strategically network is an incredibly powerful career tool, one that no one, women especially, should overlook. So, start today. Research three meaningful networking events, get yourself invited and get out there.
Nancy Ham is the CEO of WebPT, a leading rehab therapy software platform for enhancing patient care and fueling business growth. Ham has more than 25 years experience in leading health IT companies, and was previously CEO of Healthagen Population Health Solutions, an Aetna company and MedVentive, later acquired by McKesson. Her experience also includes executive roles at Sentillion, ProxyMed, Healtheon/WebMD, and ActaMed Corporation as well as five years in leveraged finance at GE Capital.