It is no secret: the number of successful female entrepreneurs and professionals in the world is far less than that of our male counterparts. Growing up, boys are taught to build large networks and acquire (and dare I say, use) as many people as they possibly can in their networks to grow their “net worth”; while girls are socialised to grow and deepen their relationships with a much smaller circle of close people. It is therefore no surprise to me that for many women, networking and mingling with strangers brings back horrifying flashbacks of awkward encounters, filled with piercing silent moments. While this has started changing, it cannot happen fast enough, and it’s up to us as women to get off the bench and get involved. We have so much in us to offer the world and it’s time we rose to the occasion! If I can play any role in encouraging women to join the game, I hope this somewhat light-hearted piece serves as a useful start…
I would not be a half decent lawyer if I did not make this upfront disclaimer: I am not a writer, columnist or great networker. I am just a young woman who is very open to, and interested in, connecting with new people. The prospect of knowing that each encounter gives me the opportunity to meet someone who may influence my life positively, open doors for me and teach me things I didn’t know about myself and the world is too attractive to ignore.
If you’ll indulge me, I would like to take us all back to that magical land of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which, thanks to my lovely 4-year old niece who made me read the book to her 7 times over one weekend, has many hidden lessons about the do’s and don’ts of networking. And no, the hidden lessons do not involve trespassing, malicious damage to property or theft as those lessons are not at all hidden!
Goldilocks was hungry and tired. She identified a clear need and went about a strategically thought through (albeit not thoroughly) path to find a way to use the resources which she created for herself to address her needs. The first lesson is simple: Avoid collecting contacts for the sake of it and instead, make meaningful connections which will serve a strategic purpose for you – and much like Goldilocks did, use them! Research has shown that most women tend to seek advice most often from those with whom they have personal relationships. Women seem to be too shy to make use of their professional resources for personal gain while men on the other hand, tend to draw more heavily on the advice of friends and professional networks.
Our second lesson requires one to be selfish with their time. Our beloved Goldilocks, sampled different bowls of porridge to find the one that’s just right: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Some of the best networkers shop around and choose their playgrounds wisely. There are plenty of great networking spaces to choose from; one may make use of gender-specific hosted events, industry-specific organizations or general business groups. If you don’t like the vibe of a certain form of networking, try another avenue until you find one with the right kind of crowd that has optimum network and diverse resource capability for you. The trick is to find the right spot, open up and make connections then, most importantly, if you make a good connection, follow up. If someone seems interesting, contact them later to get started on that relationship. Should you wish to get to know someone better, follow up after the meeting with a phone call, a meeting, hand written letter in the mail or connect with them via LinkedIn. Do not, under any circumstances, emulate Goldilocks’s mistake of running away and never looking back (unless of course you are being chased by three unrelenting carnivores).
Much like the bed that Goldilocks fell in love with, ultimately, great networkers are neither too large nor too small, but are just right. Women are great at building closeness and connections through conversation, but seem to be less inclined to let this shine through in the networking space. Don’t hold back – ask questions and engage the person and really get to know what they do. If for some reason you’re still not comfortable, remember the golden networking rule ‘Interested is Interesting’; pretend that you are interviewing people for an article about the event: get the who, what, and why that will give you insight into the person and help you establish a genuine connection. Make the task less personal and more professional. Without being too overbearing, make use of your great personality, positive attitude and broad based knowledge. Some of the best networkers are well-rounded, and are able to say something smart about almost any topic. I’m not suggesting that you know all subjects in the world with in-depth precision, but it is imperative that you know enough to break the ice and engage the other person’s interest. Remember, you aren’t establishing a long-term relationship yet, you are just opening the door to possible relationships.
Much like the chairs that Goldilocks rejected, don’t be too big. Never forget that first impressions last and word of mouth is an effective and credible endorsement tool as it defines how you are perceived by others in your network. You never know who may have influence on the people outside of the network with which you wish to connect. Nothing is more powerful in building your brand than what your network of contacts, acquaintances, friends, colleagues and clients have to say about you!
Finally, don’t just take! No one likes to be used. All influential people know that life is give and take. Think of ways in which you can add value and positively influence the people with whom you have connected. Who knows, if Goldilocks had taken the time to rearrange the bears’ home to introduce a more free-flowing feng shui, she’d have standing porridge dates with the bears to this day!
Qualifications: LLB (University of the Witwatersrand)
Occupation: Associate at Bowman Gilfillan Attorneys