by Jennifer Smith Tapp
Ask any career coach about how to reach your full potential as a professional and she will likely mention networking as part of the conversation. It makes sense that the more people you connect with, both within your industry and outside of it, the more you can bring the diversity of experiences and ideas to bear on your own career success. You already know broadening your circle of professional contacts is a valuable endeavor, but are you networking as efficiently as you could be? And what are the differences between the way men and women network?
Networking should be viewed as a way to make connections and establish mutually beneficial relationships. Rather than an exercise in collecting business cards, networking should be approached as an unlimited opportunity to learn more about your industry (and others) and support other businesses. Reaching out to others will allow you to create referral networks, as well as possibly open the door to new career opportunities for yourself in the process. Joining a professional networking group is a good place to start expanding your horizons.
Wendy Baum, a Deerfield-based financial advisor at AXA Advisors and a partner at Infinity Strategic Partners, LLC, founded the Exclusive Professional Women’s Networking Group (EPWNG) in 2009. EPWNG has members from all across the Chicago area. She suggests you define your purpose for each networking group and set a goal before each meeting you attend.
Walking into a room full of strangers can certainly be intimidating. How do you divide and conquer and get the most out of each networking encounter, especially if you are more socially reserved? Baum says “Learning how to approach a group of people already in conversation and developing a style for creating casual conversation can build confidence over time. Like anything, the more you experience the process, the more natural it becomes. I recommend starting with smaller, more intimate groups to help build easy conversational skills—such as asking strangers open-ended questions—to quickly learn commonality.” If you feel uncomfortable joining a more well-established networking group, ask friends or colleagues about connecting with other people in your industry. The mutual personal or professional connection will be a safety net, while allowing you to practice conversation skills with a stranger. Eventually, it will be easier for you to enter a room and engage someone in conversation, as well as join a conversation already in progress.
If you are already an experienced networker, you may have encountered the avalanche of emails that often land in your inbox after an event. Or maybe you have sent that message yourself. Sending a generic “It was nice to meet you” email might not be the best course of action when it comes to proper follow-up. What is the best way to follow up with someone that you have connected with?
Debbie Hopkins of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago (PWCC) says, for her, the post-event contact needs to be genuine. “When I follow up, I have a true question. The connection needs to be an intellectual one and needs to be a good fit for your industry. True connections come from things we need.”
Of course, not all networking events will be single-gender. Understanding the differences between the way women and men navigate a networking event is key to getting the most out of each interaction. Both Baum and Hopkins agree women tend to take longer to develop a rapport with someone they are speaking with, but those connections tend to last longer once they are made. Baum elaborates, “Men get right to the point when they meet someone. They do not really take the time to get to know them.” Women are more inclined to want to help and often offer help once they have spoken with someone that they feel they can trust. According to Hopkins, “Women network to get to know each other and trust each other. Women must trust before referring business.”
Angelika Coghlan, who is the Program Manager for the National Association of Women Business Owners' (NAWBO) Chicago Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!), has noticed that women are often modest when speaking about their accomplishments. “Women will often talk about their weaknesses and undersell themselves. Women want to connect and don’t want to be seen as talking about themselves too much. Men are very focused on job titles and money—they are trading info for a tangible result.” Another trait Coghlan has observed is that women have not only remembered her name as a result of having met her at past events but also recalled things about her she has told them. This also speaks to the need for women to truly connect with someone they want as part of their professional circle.
Whether you have a straightforward approach to networking or you prefer a slightly more nuanced style of connecting, building professional relationships is important. Be patient, be consistent, and be yourself.
ABOUT EPWING: Established in 2009, The Exclusive Professional Women’s Networking Group (EPWNG) is a Chicago-based organization that connects professional women. Members are able to support each other’s businesses as well as exchange information in order to advance their own careers. Meetings are monthly and are currently in Chicago, North Shore, and the Western Suburbs. Learn more about upcoming events and membership at www.epwng.com.