In any market, the most important thing you can do to advance your career and professional interests is to network. But now, as our economy shifts and changes, as new technologies arise and old ones are replaced, networking is more imperative than ever.
By the same token, it is important to remember that these are business relationships. Yes, you want to build on common interests and yes you want to establish relationships with people you like, but remember that this is a different situation than building friendships. Women, very often fall into this trap, which is odd, given that women are naturally more social creatures than men.
Women are at another disadvantage when it comes to networking, for the reason that they don’t do it often enough. Networking requires going out for drinks after work, or having breakfasts or the like. But because women have more demands on their time with family obligations they don’t network the way they should. This is a mistake, and women need to make more of an effort to get out there and do what they have to to establish and nurture their network. Start small. Commit yourself to a networking event or opportunity once every other week, building to a networking event at least once a week.
Opportunities don’t come from the sky. They come from other people. Who you know is still as important as what you know. And this means networking. Without developing a network, how are other people going to find you? Who is going to come knocking on your door? You have to create and nurture a healthy network, so opportunity can find you.
The key to effective networking in the twenty-first century is to diversify. It’s not enough to do the same old thing, to stick to your chosen field and the players in it. Today, you have to branch out and diversify to other people, in other fields and in other ways. Here’s how.
We live in a hyper-connected world, and in order to network effectively you have to be a part of that world. The good news is that networking electronically is easy, popular and effective. You can get and stay connected via any number of technological means: LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs, and any number of other electronic and on-line forums and associations.
If you are flummoxed by these new technologies or sites, have someone show you how to access and use them. It’s actually very simple. Once on them, you need to maintain them and respond to people in a timely fashion. Don’t be embarrassed if this way of doing things is unfamiliar and strange to you. Get over it and get on board; everyone is doing it and so should you.
And you can’t afford not to. The reach of these sites and technologies is simply amazing. Facebook, for example, has 250 million users, and the fastest growing demographic on that site is over 35 years old. LinkedIn, a professional rather than social site, has 25 million users, of whom 31 percent are over the age of 45. Demographically, on-line networking sites are not just for the young. Everyone is on them. You should too, and it’s as easy as a mouse click.
The thing about networks is that most people don’t use them until they need them. This is a mistake. You should always be networking and you should always be tending to your network. Whether you have been actively networking or not, now is a good time to freshen up or even get started. Reconnect with people. Have coffee, have lunch or breakfast. Go to events. Join associations and clubs. Attend seminars and industry events. Find colleagues, new and old, through appropriate Internet sites. Connect, connect, connect.
The point is to freshen up your old contacts and network by reconnecting with them, and then start fresh with new networks. You need to build relationships before you need them, so take the time and energy to do it right. The best time to develop a network is when you don’t need it. So get busy.
The obvious reason to have a network is to use it to stay informed, engaged and plugged in. It’s also the best way to find opportunities. But the key to being an effective networker is not to appear desperate, needy or on the make. Don’t be smarmy and obvious about your intentions. The point of networking is to build bonds with people who you like, who share interests and who, of course, can help you. But if you appear insincere, phony or too ambitious, it will backfire. Be real.
But very often women focus on the personal rather than on business. For example, women are naturally inclined to become friends, and often resort to cute shoes, love the bag, sort of things rather than on business.
The final imperative to the new rules of networking is to diversify your network. You have to look beyond your specific field, your current colleagues and your current industry. Think this way: What are my transferable skills? What are my interests? Then, look into those fields and start networking there.
Don’t get stuck in one field or one industry. In order to diversify you have to really think about where you can use your skills. Break out of your industry and your employment comfort zone, so you can broaden your base of opportunity.
Second, you also have to diversify the people with whom you network. It’s not your father’s business world anymore. Chances are your peer group doesn’t look the way it did 20 years ago. Today’s market moves so fast that your network has to include those above and below you, those younger and older than you, those with different skin color and sexual orientation. Younger generations are often forgotten when older people network. But remember, the people in Gen Y and Gen X and even younger will be decision makers, managers and leaders before you know it. Your network must include them, no matter where they are now.
Your network has to be multi-generational, multi-cultural, and multi-industrial. That is the best way to bullet proof your career.