By: Chinwe Esimai, Contributing Writer
Some time ago, I was being considered for a job promotion. The promotion process required recommendations from individuals who were two levels above me and outside my immediate division. I had been at the company for almost a year, yet I struggled to come up with a name.
I struggled because I had been laser-focused on doing an excellent job and hadn’t been intentional about building relationships at certain levels within my organization.
Networking as a Hallmark Growth and Development Tool
Most women readily admit that networking is an essential professional development tool. Yet few women give it the time it deserves, and consequently don’t reap its benefits.
I define networking as “intentional interactions with people for the purpose of enriching your and their professional lives and your journeys through life.” It’s the trinity of people, relationships, and growth/enrichment.
Networking interactions are distinct from interactions necessitated by work projects, although there could be overlap. Primarily, I think of networking as the opportunities you create, or intentionally embark upon, to enrich yourself and others.
In professional contexts, networking enables individuals to form genuine connections that are unlikely to be formed through projects or work discussions.
Networking can lead to broadened perspectives, deepened relationships, knowledge of job opportunities, and acquisition of mentors and sponsors. The possibilities are indeed endless.
Obstacles of Networking:
In my experience, the following are the most common reasons most women don’t network on a consistent basis.
There are multiple demands on your time.
Networking feels futile, like a poor use of your valuable time.
Networking events take place in the evening; you’d like to get home to the family.
Networking events take place at lunchtime; you’d like to work through lunch to complete important tasks.
You’re an introvert; networking feels unnatural.
Networking is overwhelming, and you don’t know where to begin.
Important conversations in your field take place on the golf course, or in the context of an activity you’re unfamiliar with, or have no interest in learning.
If you identify with any of these reasons, first, be convinced of the importance of networking. A number of the reasons above boil down to not viewing networking, or the resulting networks, as a priority. As you seek to enrich your life, professionally and otherwise, cultivating relationships with people who can play big or small roles in the journey is critical.
Second, I believe all leadership behaviors can be learned. The task is to adapt specific tools to yourself, your circumstances, and your predispositions. It’s about growth and building pathways between where you are and where you want to be.
The tips below provide a framework for building authentic networking pathways.
Four Superb Networking Tips:
1) Be Strategic. Be intentional, and map out your networking plan. We often leap into the ocean of networking too late—when we are in the job market, making a career jump, seeking answers to a particular question, or seeking a promotion. Mapping out a networking plan makes it a lot less overwhelming and a lot more effective.
This was the case in my earlier example. I struggled to think of individuals who could deliver strong recommendations because I hadn’t strategized in advance.
If, conversely, months or even years before I was up for promotion, I’d mapped out what the promotion process would involve, who I needed to nurture relationships with and how I would go about it, I would’ve been much better positioned. I would’ve purposefully developed relationships with the appropriate people and at the appropriate levels to meet my goals. I did get the promotion, but it was more of a strain than it needed to be.
2) Customize: Networking should serve your purposes. It is about what’s unique to you—your interests, your field, and your opportunities. At the outset of your journey to intentional networking, ask yourself the important questions: What do you seek to accomplish? What are you passionate about? What are your networking values? How can networking serve you?
Write a wish list. Write out specific names and organizations, as well as how you would engage with them. Don’t put all your networking dreams in a single individual or organization. While certain relationships will deepen and blossom over time, be open to limited, authentic interactions, and watch what unfolds.
Have a genuine interest in others and what’s important to them. This is how you identify common interests, passions, and complimentary goals. It’s also how you build deep relationships over time.
If you don’t have an interest in a particular activity, consider alternative means to engage the same individuals. If such opportunities don’t exist, consider acquiring the skill or building a similar skill that would expose you to individuals you seek to engage with.
If you’re an introvert, seek out tools and professional resources designed for and by introverts. Susan Cain’s bestselling book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, could be a great start.
3) Think Broadly About Sources. I’ve often said this in relation to mentoring, and it’s equally applicable to networking—it’s important to think broadly about sources. Networks aren’t only built in uptight professional conferences—they are built in alumni events, churches, synagogues, schools, and volunteer events.
Find resources that support your goals. For example, there are organizations focused on professional women and empowering them with tools to succeed. Ellevate Network is one such network. It’s a global organization that enables professional women to learn and invest in themselves. I have found it to be an excellent resource to build professional skills and relationships. Find an Ellevate chapter near you. If there isn’t one in your area, start one, or find a similar organization.
A number of organizations focus on building specific skills. Toastmasters is committed to empowering people with speaking skills. I’ve never been a member, but I’ve heard superb feedback from members. Certain organizations are focused on teaching women skills that support professional networking, such as golf and poker.
Think beyond your field, as this helps fuel innovation. You’ll encounter ideas that can be transferred and applied in an ingenuous way to your field and areas of interest.
4) Choose Your Time Investment Wisely. Networking need not be an overwhelming time commitment. Combine various strategies—an email to a mentor, former colleague, or fellow alumni in your field or in a field you would love to learn about; a 20-minute Skype or conference call; a half hour coffee break, a half hour lunch, or a day-long conference or event.
Set periodic goals that suit your needs, for example, three day-long conferences a year, a panel once a quarter, monthly lunches or coffee meetings, and weekly outreach emails. Firm up the commitment to yourself by scheduling networking tasks in advance.
Networking is powerful because authentic human connection is powerful. Like most hallmark self-empowerment tools, networking is a muscle to be built over time. Make a habit of it, and integrate it into your ongoing development processes. The best fruits of networking are those whose seeds are sewn well in advance of the need for them and are nurtured over time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
<strong>Chinwe Esimai</strong> is an award-winning lawyer, author, and speaker. She is Managing Director and Chief Anti-Bribery Officer at Citigroup, Inc. where she oversees the firm’s global anti-bribery program. She was born in Nigeria and is passionate about inspiring generations of immigrant women leaders. She shares leadership at http://www.chinweesimai.com/blog and on Forbes.