Why don’t women network? Why don’t women go out and grab every professional opportunity they can to meet new people, or even meet the same people?
‘I can’t network. It’s a bunch of guys getting together.’
‘I can’t stand it—schmoozing with a bunch of people I have scant regard for. What a waste of time.’
And yet, we have to do it for our careers in this imperfect world where it is considered important.
People do need the lubrication of small talk when at parties and events. It seems shallow and tedious to most of the women I meet, but more often, it actually helps build some great friendships and professional equations.
I was recently at an internal company sales conference (at a firm where I consulted) where I met a number of people from other countries and other companies for the first time. I remember meeting a young 20-something from a leading retail store in India, which has its head office in Mumbai. He came and introduced himself and a woman colleague of his. He shook my hand and asked me what I did. I told him. He immediately said, ‘Oh! We must talk about doing something together.’ I told him my business was his competition, but he continued, ‘It doesn’t matter. We should talk, you never know.’
I was impressed. Here was this young boy, who wasn’t even empowered to make decisions, yet he approached me, started a conversation, hung out for a few minutes, invited me to drop into their store, and then left. And what did the young woman do? She just stood at his side and smiled.
As an aside, months later I actually forged a partnership with that company.
This syndrome of women staying in the background bothers me. En route to a conference recently, I was sharing a ride with an attendee. I asked him who the interesting people at the conference were. He rattled off the names of many men and maybe one woman. I asked him to give me more women’s names and he thought and said, ‘Women are boring at networking evenings. They do not have much to say.’ I was perplexed. It was a PR conference after all. Wasn’t that by default the natural trait of everyone there? But soon I realized that what he had said was true. The women stuck to their cohorts, their own agency groups. The men walked up to everyone and chatted with them, exchanging company information, industry gossip.
I met many new people that weekend. I went on morning runs with people I had met only once. I went for lunch with others, but no other woman joined me. The very senior heads of agencies were busy networking, both men and women, but women down the line—nada.
Some ways to own it:
1. Attend as many events as you possibly can—conferences, seminars, tweet ups. Whatever you can sign up for that sounds new and interesting, please go.
2. Make one new connection that is meaningful every week or so. If you get invited to parties, informal get-togethers, GO! It’s so easy to fall into the ‘I’m tired’ slump. I’m guilty too! I just want to get into my pyjamas and watch TV most days. But it’s so important to get out there, meet people, do new things. Don’t discount alumni networks, your child’s annual day functions and birthday parties, your spouse or partner’s office parties. I’m not advocating making parties the be all and end all of your life, but I am encouraging you to explore avenues to find ways to network.
3. Be bold. Introduce yourself to small groups. You can do this in a few ways. I use the simplest way—smile and say, “Do you mind if I join you?” No one really says no. There may be an awkward silence but don’t let that get to you. Introduce yourself and ask them questions like what they do, or their opinion on the conference.
4. When you travel, write emails to people and hook up for a coffee, a lunch, a drink. Say you are in ‘their side of town’ and want to drop into their office on the way and say hello.
5. Find ways to connect. If you spoke to someone about an article, mail it to him or her; if you mentioned an interesting book, send them a copy. I met someone on Twitter who loves natural soap. At a mela, I came upon some cold pressed natural soap from Uttarakhand and sent her a box. I had never met her. I needed nothing from her. There was no ulterior motive. I just thought she would enjoy it.
6. Step out of the office one day a month if you can, with a colleague from sales, and go on their calls. You will learn so much about people, about the art of small talk, the art of hard talk.
7. Attend presentations and pitches by agencies and third-party vendors if you can. It will give you insights into what is important, people’s attention spans, how to stick to the script and then again, when and where to deviate from the script and play it by ear. You will start getting more attuned to reading other people.
8. ‘Invest in yourself,’ says Bindu Sethi, a stalwart in an advertising agency. ‘One of the big things you must do is give yourself oxygen before you give it to anyone. So what’s your oxygen? Mine is fitness and trekking and cycling and a little reading. I’m not going to take that “time to network” out of my work day or oxygen time. Am I in touch with everyone I should be in touch with? No, but I do know who I need to be in touch with—and more importantly, I have my own oxygen.’ Since Bindu approaches everything from the larger viewpoint, her wise words make sense. ‘As far as networking goes, women get bullied. Who decided that the male networking post-hours drinks is the most powerful structure? Why isn’t the picnic group with families and kids on a Sunday a powerful group? Because, traditionally, we women have not questioned it. We can change it by connecting with other women, by devising different ways to network and include men. Don’t buy into the male definitions of networking. Form groups and invest in your own. Change the paradigm.’
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins from the book, Own it: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do, by Aparna Jain. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.