How can women get better at networking?

Any discussion about the differences between male and female business styles will invariably descend into stereotypes and generalisations. However, recent figures from headhunting firm Norman Broadbent that show we are far from reaching Lord Davies’ target of having 25% women on FTSE 100 boards by 2015 may raise some questions as to whether or not women at senior level are selling themselves as well as they might.

As Angela O’Connor, CEO of consultancy The HR Lounge, pointed out in Personnel Today’s recent analysis of boardroom diversity, one year on from the Davies report, the fact that senior males have so much access to informal networking opportunities makes a huge differences when it comes to their being considered for executive roles. Those old stereotypes of deals sealed on the golf course may be dying out, but much relationship building still goes on outside the formal business environment.

Devising a networking plan

Lisa Gerhardt, global HR practice leader at Boyden Global Executive Search, offers the following tips for anyone who wants to improve their networking skills:

  • Set yourself a clear networking strategy. Do not blindly go to events simply because they are being held. This is unfocused and untargeted. Choose events to attend that are of interest and value to you.
  • Take a marketing perspective. Ask yourself who is going to be there and what are they seeking to get from the event? What do they need? What can I do that allows me to satisfy their needs?
  • This is about marketing you, so target those who match with you and go to those events and no others. You need to look at your current networking, dissect it, drill down to an individual level, rebuild the audiences in “clusters” that make sense. Focus on those with whom you have something in common and restructure your contacts into meaningful and relevant groups.
  • Focus on your personal value proposition. What are the benefits and value you can offer to others? Offer a helping hand, not a grabbing fist. Focus on the positives that you can offer, rather than allowing to be dragged down by your weaknesses.
  • By focusing on solving others’ problems, you will start to become known as an expert. Fine-tune your expertise towards your audience and build a communications plan to broadcast this.
  • By making a difference, being visible and relevant you will form your own network and watch people want to join up with you.

Working the room

Without a doubt, networking is a key element in how both men and women further their careers. If you’ve long been considered a functional expert in your field, getting out there, leading discussions and promoting yourself is one way in which you convince your peers and potential future employers that you have the confidence to take on leadership roles. However, men and women tend to adopt slightly different approaches when it comes to “working the room”.

“Being forced to make conversation, introduce oneself and then compete in a prefabricated atmosphere at a networking event can often feel false,” says Lisa Gerhardt, global HR practice leader at Boyden Global Executive Search. “Bravado and bluff are great male traits, in as much as they help to break the ice, but they are not behaviours that rest easily in women.”

Personalise the networking relationship

An article in US business magazine Forbes echoes these sentiments, suggesting that women try to personalise the networking relationship by making connections with the person they are speaking with, whereas men tend to think “What do I need to get out of this?” and ask for it.

John Lees, career strategist and author of The Interview Expert, agrees: “Women tend to be better at building non-transactional relationships,” he explains. “When men see each other they have a tendency to refer to their skills and knowledge, while women will say something more personal. There’s a different kind of relationship building.”

In the long term, this more nuanced approach to networking can reap benefits. “These relationships tend to last a bit longer and are more valuable when things get difficult,” Lee says. Further, women are better at asking for support when they feel vulnerable or need help, he adds, while men tend to find this difficult.

Male-dominated environments

Ines Wichert, a senior psychologist at Kenexa, recently published a book called “Where have all the senior women gone?”, for which she spoke to 49 senior business women at FTSE 100 companies. She found that all of these women had been forced to learn to network in male-dominated environments. “A lot of them talked about experiences they’d had of being the only woman in the room. It was intimidating, but they had to learn to do it,” she says. “It’s all about visibility, getting your name out there should a position become available.” Wichert adds that recruiting a mentor or a sponsor who can increase your visibility and get your name into discussions can help to make your networking efforts more effective, whatever your gender.

So should women adopt a stereotypically male approach to networking: decide what they want to get out of an opportunity and ask for it? Not completely, says John Lees. “Sometimes that outcome-driven networking can be viewed as manipulative if a woman is doing it, but not a man. Unfortunately, it’s not a level playing field.”

Different types of networks

That’s not to say that women should approach potential networking opportunities without a plan. “Make the most of different types of networks,” advises Wichert. “You have your more focused, in-depth networks for emotional support, but when you need career advice or are looking for a new role, you need to spread yourself wider.”

Wichert adds that, while women-only networking groups, which have gained in popularity as women fight for greater representation at senior level, have their place, they can become something of a networking cul-de-sac. “The danger with these groups is that you only network with other women. If you want to get ahead, you need to network where the senior decision-makers are, and most of these are men,” she says.

And, while the route to board-level roles may still be a challenging one for ambitious women, that is not to say that both styles of networking cannot co-exist. Building relationships and the ability to listen provide a great foundation for maintaining business partnerships in the long term; securing the deal is only the start.

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