Networking. For many, the word alone conjures up memories of endless panel discussions, rooms crammed with strangers, stilted small talk, and (often) a strong desire to crawl into bed.
And today, where roughly 80 percent of jobs aren’t publicly advertised, the “it’s who you know” mantra rings louder than ever.
But with female executives in competitive industries now logging upwards of 45 hours or more in a workweek, when is all this ever-important networking supposed to take place? The key to success lies in discarding those outdated notions of networking and embracing a more holistic approach to making connections in your everyday life.
“I think of everything as an opportunity,” says Alexandra Wright, a sales strategist at a domestic airline and mother of three in her mid-40s. “Every place you go is an opportunity to learn from someone you meet.”
Start With a Pep Talk
Maybe, for you, an engine-revving Amy Cuddy-style power pose is just the thing to get you in the mood to break outside your comfort zone. But it might be just as helpful to reframe and demystify your ideas of “networking.”
First and foremost, focus on being authentic, says Alison Taffel Rabinowitz, a consultant who teaches classes on networking, negotiating, and the gender pay gap. “I always ask, ‘How many people think networking is slimy?’ And most people raise their hands.”
Avoid that by reframing your approach to make it more about connecting with people about mutual interests and figuring out how you can support one another.
“The longer you’re in the workforce, the more you change from being potentially jealous of what others have accomplished to being happy for them,” Wright says. “Everyone reaches a point where they can help each other.”
To be an effective networker, remind yourself that the end goal isn’t just about advancing to the next rung on the corporate ladder. If you’re taking an organic approach, you might wind up chatting with someone who has “attended a training that you thought was neat and want to attend, too, or [someone who] gave a presentation that inspired your own work,” Wright says.
Your Community Is a Gold Mine
As you’re banding together with neighbors to address the lack of speed bumps in your development or gathering for Sunday’s Pop Warner football game, consider the valuable connections you’re already making.
“I host a neighborhood Halloween party every year, and I have a neighbor who’s a consultant, an attorney, a partner at an accounting firm, a small business owner, a woman who processes visas, the head of an ER,” Wright says. “It’s crucial to be known by your neighbors, and you never know where those connections may lead.”
Rabinowitz adds: “I basically tell people, you never know who you’ll meet at the playground.”
That means it might be time to look at soccer matches and play dates with fresh eyes. Developing relationships around shared interests is a far cry from playing the wallflower at a networking event—and more likely to reveal your true self.
Make Your Communication Count
Not so keen on talking to strangers? That’s fine. Ask smart questions that’ll keep them talking.
“People like to talk about themselves,” Wright says. “So think of probing questions rather than talking about yourself first.” Doing so will establish the impression that you’re interested in them, not (thankfully) self-interested.
After your initial encounter, strategically move your relationship forward in a way that feels natural to you. If you already know you’ll lose that business card, connect on LinkedIn. Once you’re ready to move to the next level, like a one-on-one coffee date? Wright swears by calendar invites, to “set something solid in their schedule.” If your connection doesn’t live in the same city or is crunched on time, Rabinowitz suggests scheduling a brief, yet more personal, video chat on Skype or Google Hangout.
Be sure to identify ways you can assist your new acquaintance. “I always try to offer up help to people, whether it’s a useful resource or potential job opportunity,” Rabinowitz says. “Women who open doors for other women will have other doors open to them.”
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