The art of engagement (or how to network properly)

November 20, 2013

Photo by Ged Carroll, under Creative Commons license

I recently joined 85 Broads, and earlier today I was on a so-called 'jam session' they arranged online called The Art of Engagement: How to Network Your Way to the Top. OK, I thought, hyperbolic title, but I'll sign up. Because, when it comes to networking, despite being fairly outgoing, I identify with the cringing attendee Kimberly Weisul outlined in this piece on Lifehacker.

Perhaps I'm about to change.

The excellent speaker was Mary Kopczynski, CEO of 8of9 Consulting. I'll highlight some of the most useful takeaways for others who may find networking tough or distasteful:

She started out by telling a great story of a crisis point in her life when she needed to work out what she wanted to do next. She flew home to Seattle, having emailed a whole bunch of friends and family, friends' parents, even an old teacher, saying she'd like them to book time slots with her in a local cafe where they could "tell me about what you do for a living, how you got where you are, what you like and dislike about your industry." She quickly realized even her closest network was powerful - a lot of people showed up, even Bill Gates's father, Bill Gates Senior. That success gave her confidence and a bit of audacity, and she amped up her networking efforts afterwards. 

Networking "is not meeting people", she said. "Networking is the process of turning a relationship with a stranger into a strategic partnership over time." I think women find this idea tough to come to terms with because we tend to view networking as somewhat icky, as using people - we don't view it as 'real' relationship building in the way we like to think of relationships (solid, meaningful friendships). We need to re-frame it a bit, to see it as a situation where we can potentially help the other person as well (more on that below).

If you go to an event, such as a conference, and collect a bunch of business cards, don't follow up for at least a week. People have taken time out of their busy work schedules to attend these things, Kopczynski said, and they need some time to settle back into their routine. So wait a while. You may have to remind them of who you are and how you met in the first line of the email, but that's fine. However, do follow up. She said she often leaves a conference having given out her card and never hears back from anyone she's met. 

Quality over quantity: she aims to meet one good person at each event. But that doesn't mean you should spend the whole event "looking over your shoulder to the next person" while you're talking to someone. 

Once you have made a connection after the event, stay in touch, even if it's just twice a year, or less, to let the person know what you're up to. For women this may involve getting over that feeling that you're "bothering people" (I know it well) but it's actually a way of keeping your network alive. 

She realizes not everyone is as bold as she is. On overcoming shyness at events, she reminded us there are probably plenty of other people feeling just as uncomfortable, "So when you make the first move, it relieves other people." Also, don't feel bad inserting yourself into a conversation where two people are talking to eachother (this came from the Lifehacker piece) - they probably just met and they may need an out from eachother. Go ahead and butt in.

On approaching people you don't know/have not actually met, she had a good story.  (I also recommend reading this 99u piece and this blog post by Mike Collett on email introductions.) She said it's all about "creating the right relevance" - for example, she wanted to get in touch with the US Trade Representative to ask a little career advice. She'd never met the man, but found out he had spoken at Rutgers at some point in the not too distant past. She had not attended the talk. But she approached him via email saying she knew he'd spoken at Rutgers (without actually saying she'd heard him) and that she was hoping she could talk to him about worked. Then, years later, she approached him again, seeking an introduction to someone at the FDA, reminding him of their earlier conversation ("You once gave me some great career advice.") People are actually willing to help you if you strike the right tone of politeness and flattery, and remind them of who you are.

"It's not about who they are, it's about who they know and who they will become." At one point she was approached by an administrative assistant in a networking capacity, and initially thought, "Hmmm, I wonder if there's really anything in this for me." But it turns out there was. Later on this same assistant was able to provide multiple introductions to Kopczynski for a project she was working on.

On how not to come across as aggressive, something women worry about a lot, she simply stuck to the idea of being polite and friendly, and always respecting people's time (a stellar saleswoman friend of mine reminded me of this earlier this week as she taught me how to approach strangers via email - acknowledge in the email that you know they're very busy). She said one of the most aggravating things that happens to her is "the intro bomb" when someone e-introduces her to someone else without asking her permission first. "It's super-exhausting to get those emails," she said.

I think 'the art of engagement' actually turned out to be a perfect title for this session. A lot of women, myself included, tend to think of networking as somehow fake, and hard to pull off well. Being good at this involves quashing some typically female tendencies (i.e. assuming you're a pain in the ass rather than someone who could offer something - or is that just me? Also, caring too much about rejection) - but judging by Kopczynski's stories, it's worth it. 

Are women's networking groups useless?

June 13, 2013

I'm a relative newcomer to networking. When I worked as a reporter for a public radio show, I was in the office almost every day, busy from 9.30 to 6ish, or 4a.m. to noon, and glad to go home at the end of the day having met my deadline and got on the air. I didn't think about networking. I was thoroughly engaged where I was, and the word had something unpleasant about it, something fake and schmooze-festy, a tinge of falseness I didn't associate with myself. 

Once I was out on my own, the word acquired a whole new meaning. Now I network whenever I can, within reason. Often, simply because of the nature of what I'm doing with this show, I'm at networking events with other women. That can be great - I think women let their hair down when they're with other women - but there have been several times when I've been at such events and wondered whether they are helping me in any way whatsoever. The whole point of networking is to meet people who can help you in some way with your career or business and who you may be able to help in return. When I interviewed an entrepreneur for a public radio story last year, she agreed that there's a tendency for a group of women to forget what they're there for:

"One of most infuriating things for me going out is when I attend certain women-in-business functions and it’s a social club." 

It turns out things may not be much better within large companies, although not because these networking groups function as social clubs. In this piece in the Harvard Business Review, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox (now there's a name for you) says most in-company women's groups are doing nothing to advance women within the company. I'll quote one of my favorite paragraphs:

"A group of men who decide (or are told by government) that they need more women in their teams turn to the few women in senior roles and task them with finding a solution. The women, delighted with this glimmer of interest in their fate, duly throw themselves (in their free time, on top of their day jobs) into launching usually unfunded corporate women's networks and draft a business case on the corporate advantages of gender balance. A senior woman is put in charge and sent to every external conference as a corporate representative. This results in a women's conference with lots of motivational speakers and a few male 'champions' to encourage the girls. Sound familiar?"

It does. I have a friend who works at a large global media company who describes her firm's efforts to advance women in just this way - she says the men at the firm see the women's networking groups, think, "The women are off doing their thing", and stay firmly in their own firmament. The result is that at the firm's conferences and events, it's still an all-white-male lineup. The men shrug, sure that they're making large efforts on their female colleagues' behalf, yet still they don't seem able to climb the ladder. I highly recommend Wittenberg-Cox's piece, in which she suggests ways this situation can be turned around, including instituting accountability for managers who are tasked with building more balanced teams, and instead of women's networks, having what she calls 'balance networks' with both sexes (if you heard the last show you'll know I can't stand the word 'gender', but here it is anyway, coming from Wittenberg-Cox).

"Their goal becomes skill- and bridge-building around gender understanding rather than segregation."

I'd love to hear from anyone in the comments who has strong views on women's networking groups - in-house or otherwise.