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The New Way to Network To succeed in high-stakes business, you'll need to build relationships while building your brand.

By Patti Fletcher

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The following excerpt is from Dr. Patti Fletcher's book Disrupters: Success Strategies From Women Who Break the Mold. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

You know the old saying "It's not about what you know, it's about who you know"? If only it were that easy. To succeed in high-stakes business, the real differentiator is who knows you. And that, my friend, requires you to build relationships while building your brand.

We're talking about networking.

Not the "Let's go eat crappy finger food and hand out business cards at a local networking event" kind, but strategic networking: searching for, identifying and investing in long-term relationships.

Women need skills and personal capital, but social capital is even more important. We need help from below us, beside us and above us. Everyone needs help, but few women understand how truly important relationships are. We don't live in a meritocratic world; never have and never will. We do live in a world where word-of-mouth is still the most powerful referral tool.

In PricewaterhouseCoopers' 2016 "Women in the Workplace" report, the study found that men were more networked with other men than women were. That may be obvious, but they worked out the math:

  • Men: 37 percent networked mostly with other men; nine percent, mostly women; 55 percent, equal split
  • Women: 27 percent networked mostly with other women; 27 percent, mostly men; 45 percent, equal split

Because the upper echelons of organizations are overwhelmingly male, this means that fewer women are networked with the people who can introduce them into these arenas. While it may seem self-explanatory, this concept of strategic networking is profoundly important for women.

Related: 16 Tips for Becoming a Master Networker

Those successful VC-funded startups that land billions of dollars in capital? Their social networks play a huge part in getting financed. Those CEOs and new appointees to the board of directors? Friends of friends. Good ol' boys network.

In fact, a 2016 study from the American Economic Review found that a woman more than doubles her chances of serving on the board of a publicly traded company in Singapore if she plays golf. And while boards of directors may employ headhunters to find qualified candidates for board seats or executive positions, the roles are still often given to someone recommended by some stakeholder of the organization. At the very least, the candidate is often vouched for by "a friend of a friend."

My observation is that nearly all board seats are filled from or at the very least influenced by, referrals. Networking is everything. Women and minorities aren't part of the dominant corporate culture, so they start on the outside and have to eventually work their way in.

Related: 10 Powerful Business Networking Skills to Build Rapport Quickly

Try the new way to "network"

What do our rule breakers do to achieve the success they want? They create their own networks of like-minded people who are committed to mutual support -- not the transactional what-can-you-do-for-me-now type of networking we usually see.

In talking about gaining access to be invited to be on a board of directors, one of my research interviewees said, "Networking is the time you commit to developing a business-personal relationship with someone....It's a mutual commitment between two people who develop this relationship that has no immediate benefit." In fact, most of the women who do this don't even think of it as networking. It's just about having relationships.

In Stiletto Network, author Pamela Ryckman profiled women-focused groups springing up across the globe. What Pamela noted was how intimate these groups were. In addition to discussing business, they talk about their fears in life and work and create genuine friendships. What I love about Pamela's examples is that these women aren't focused exclusively on helping each other climb the corporate ladder but on mutually supporting each other's goals, whatever those happen to be.

That comes back to one of my central themes: Success isn't necessarily about becoming a CEO or getting on the board of directors. It's about identifying a life that works for you, figuring out a lifestyle that fits those goals and then finding the help you need to achieve that.

Women must define their own path to success. Once they do, they can identify others who share a similar life vision. Then they can form a network of like spirits to help each other reach their goals.

Related: 13 Habits of Exceptionally Likable People

Forget networks -- focus on relationships

I've never found a woman yet who sincerely enjoyed going to networking events. Who really likes holding a glass of cheap chardonnay while exchanging business cards and superficial niceties? Thankfully, we can stop. The empirical and anecdotal evidence says it just doesn't help. In fact, not one of my dissertation subjects spent time pursuing this kind of networking.

What does help is finding women with whom you can have genuine relationships -- women who will support you, advise you, encourage you, advocate for you and go to bat for you. Our disrupters don't just network inside their industry. They purposely cultivate a network that spans multiple industries. When one executive, formerly the CEO of a software company, sought to be on the board of directors of another company, she looked outside IT. "I want to keep learning. I could be valuable to a software company, but I want to move out of my comfort zone. That's really the only way you grow," she told me.

This isn't a call to create a sexist "no boys allowed" club. More often than not, the strategic relationships of our heroines include men. Ideally, a network comprises a healthy representation of not just both genders but a cross-section of people from diverse industries, backgrounds, skill sets, positions, ethnicities and more.

Cultivating relationships is an ongoing process. One woman told me, "You know, I keep running into this former comptroller of a large company. She has the same skills I do, but she's only on one board. When she says how much she'd like to get on another, I ask, 'How much networking are you doing?' She says, 'Oh, I haven't really got to it yet.' And I think, Well, it doesn't happen magically."

It's not magic. It's work.

Patti Fletcher

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Leadership Futurist and Gender Equity Advocate

Dr. Patti Fletcher is the author of Disrupters: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold (Entrepreneur Press 2018). Dr. Patti is an enterprise tech CMO, gender equity expert, board member and keynote speaker who has spent her career at the intersection of technology, business and people.

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