Diana Vanbrabant, Managing Dir. of ETACC: ‘The European Training and Coaching Company’

The power of networking – why is networking such an important part of our business life? Do women network differently from men? How could we do it better?

Building up a good business network has become essential to business success – whether you are a manager needing support as you forge your way up the corporate ladder, or an entrepreneur embroiled in the challenges of finding clients for your own business.

A wide range of business networking events exist that cater for all types of new contacts. Local events can include Chamber of Commerce events, talks by local or visiting business leaders, workshops or training events. But networking doesn’t only take place at this type of event. If you are going to make a success of networking, you must learn to be doing it 24 hours a day. Your business network is not only made up of the people whose business cards you have collected at the formal events you have attended.

“If you are taking networking seriously, your contacts will include the person you shared a taxi with on the way to the airport after a conference; somebody you got chatting to at your fitness or sports centre; the parents of your children’s classmates…”

There is nobody you come across in your daily work and personal life who does not have the potential to become a useful name on your contact list.

And as well as real-life situations, there is now a virtual world out there which can ease your way to keeping in touch with your contacts. Social media networking websites are an essential part of your business life today. Their value is not so much in extending your network; the Internet is not as conducive to meeting new people as cyber-fanatics might have us think. But social media networks are an excellent way to keep in touch once you have made contact.

As women become an ever increasing force in the business world, how do their networking needs and preferences compare with men’s? Do men and women network in the same way? Are women more or less successful at it than their male counterparts?

In general, it is believed that most women are better listeners than men – and there is no better way to get the confidence of a new acquaintance than to show that you are listening and are genuinely interested in what they are saying.

Analyses show that, in most cultures, indeed women network in a different way from men. Women usually have smaller networks and closer relationships with their contacts than men.

Corporate women network for career advancement and entrepreneurs for building up their businesses – the same reasons that men do it. But they tend to keep the possibilities in the back of their minds all the time, nurturing relationships that may come to fruition some time in the future. And they will be continually aware of their contacts who may need a career boost themselves. Men are likely to pay less attention to their contacts until they have a need, and then cast around in a less premeditated way to see who among their contacts is able to help them.

When it comes to building clients for a business, the similarities are probably closer. Only entrepreneurs who keep the possibility of new clients at the top of their minds all the time will succeed in business. Events such as Chamber of Commerce networking evenings and “speed-dating” business exchanges seem to be attended by a fairly balanced gender mix.

When it comes to social media, women may well be better at it than men. My list of contacts on LinkedIn comprises almost exactly twice as many women as men!

But reports show that women still need to do more networking – and to do it more extensively. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) study on “The Role of Networks in Women’s Entrepreneurship and Business Ownership” shows that women working in their own businesses tend to have smaller networks than men, and that in most regions their networks are less diverse. Women more often turn for advice to their family members, while men are more likely to seek advice from friends and other network sources. GEM suggests that this could put women at a disadvantage, since their sources of advice might be less innovative and less internationally-minded.

(The report is available at this link: Global Entrepreneurship Monitor: 2010 Women’s Report)

On the face of it, women should have a huge advantage when you consider how many women-in-business networking groups exist – both in the social media and in real life. There has been a lot of discussion about this phenomenon.

Why are there so many women-exclusive groups, and so few for men? Do women see this as a missed opportunity for men? And how do men view women’s groups – perhaps as strange and mysterious, a kind of secret cult?

It is easy – too easy – to generalise, and easy to criticise the opposite sex. We tend to reject ways of working about which we feel personally uncomfortable because we feel we can’t manage them ourselves. It is easy to criticise the talents of others – and sometimes we do it because we don’t possess their talent.

If I take myself as an example: I envy people who can talk the talk, and approach complete strangers with a random topic and talk about it for 15 minutes without any problem. These people get on my nerves simply because I don’t have the talent to do this, but deep down I wish I could do the same and feel good about myself.

But regardless of how and why men and women handle the building up and maintaining of their contact lists, you can’t escape from the numbers.

Percentages show that men on average have a larger number of contacts than women. So, how can we do it better?

Most business women – myself among them – get a little twinge of excitement when they set off to attend some kind of networking event. Who will I meet? What new acquaintances and contacts will I make? What new information will I pick up that will help me in my professional – and maybe personal – life? It’s important not to spoil the opportunity by missing a chance – that’s why a checklist of networking tips is a good thing to keep in mind.

Your business cards: Make sure you have enough business cards on you. Yes, some people say that business cards are out of date these days. All you need is an email address or website. But a business card is still a sure way to know that the information is clear and will be easy to find again.

Their business cards: Even more important – collect business cards. I had a colleague who gave herself a strict goal at every event to collect at least 10 business cards. It’s not only a way to collect contact information – it’s also a message to your new contact. If you ask for a business card – or contact details – they will know you are serious. And it’s a big compliment – when somebody asks for your personal information it gives you a huge feel-good moment.

Who’s who? And the subtle side of it – surreptitiously make a personal note on the back of the card – so you will remember who it is. Nobody who meets twenty or thirty new faces in an evening can be expected to remember each one afterwards. Just a couple of words on the back of the card will bring it all back – I’ve used phrases like “wearing Calvin Klein glasses”, “her son is a lawyer” or even “spilt her orange juice”.

Top three: As well as the other participants, there are three people that you always want to be sure to network with at an event: the speaker; the event host/organizer; and the person doing registration and sign-in. The person at the front door sees everybody, and knows their name, and also is usually aware where the host is and can point you in their direction.

Listening skills: Don’t be so eager to speak about yourself that you don’t listen to the other person. Apply the 80/20 role – listen for 80% of the time. Prepare what you need to say about yourself so that you can communicate your value to them concisely. That way you save time for more listening! Ask lots of questions – that’s what women are good at! And don’t write people off too quickly. They may not be a value proposition for you at the moment, but you might find a need for their services several months – or years – later.

Create value: This is the essence of networking. Look for opportunities to be of service, and you’ll benefit in the long run, as well. Remember that you are not there only to take – be prepared to give as well.

Follow up: And how many times do you leave the session thinking “tomorrow morning I’ll email all the new contacts I met this evening”. And then when you arrive at the office the next morning, the routine of the day sets in, and the emails never get sent. Self-discipline is all part of the process!!

It’s also good to give a thought to how many networking events you go to, and how you prioritise them. It is invigorating for business women to attend women’s networking events – you feel you’re mixing with like-minded people, sharing your aspirations and your challenges. But it’s also an easy and safe way to network.

Are you cheating yourself out of some potentially useful male contacts? Don’t avoid mixed gender opportunities.

In spite of what some gender “experts” tell us, men can think and talk seriously about business too! Look not only for mixed business events such as those hosted by your local Chamber of Commerce but industry-specific opportunities, such as associations and lobbying groups.

Using your network for career advancement – paying it forward

Do men and women also behave differently in the way they use their networks to advance the careers of others? Business leaders of both genders who are aware that they have had help with their career advancement in the past are eager to pay it forward by promoting protégés of their own. A study by Catalyst (New York, June 2012) looks at how business leaders benefit themselves when they help others to advance their careers – “Paying It Forward Pays Back for Business Leaders”. Founded in 1962, Catalyst is a nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business.

The study shows that leaders who promote others can often experience over time a tangible (financial) benefit. In most corporate arenas, promoting others is recognised as a leadership quality, and is taken into consideration when the time comes for promotion or bonuses.

The study also indicates that the “Queen Bee” theory is old hat. It used to be believed that women were less likely to help others with career advancement, because of fear of professional rivalry and of being undermined. But figures show that a higher percentage of women than men are helping others to move up the career ladder.

(The study is available at this link).

Diana is the Managing Director of ETACC: ‘The European Training and Coaching Company’, working with clients based in Europe, America and the UK.

Diana works together with other carefully selected trainers to deliver ETACC’s wide range of high qualitytraining courses and one-on-one coaching programmes. Her specialization is in topics such as public speaking, motivational speeches, persuasion and negotiation skills; as well as cross-cultural business skills and international leadership skills. Her programmes are delivered in English, French, German and Dutch.
Read her full profile here.

Diana Vanbrabant’s post appeared first on The NextWomen.

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