As females continue to gain momentum in the classroom and the boardroom, understanding how to network across a spectrum of diversity becomes critical. While women continue to lean in, particularly during this continued period of economic distress, it's essential they also network out. Eight pieces of advice for women (though, many apply to men as well) to start 2014:
1. Showcase your work
Athena Vongalis-Macrow wrote in a post at the Harvard Business Review Blog that research indicates "[women's] networking actions were ineffective in helping them achieve their aims." Women are naturally drawn to helping, but simply supporting others and giving career advice doesn't effectively showcase one's work.
The emerging opportunity lies in restructuring old models of being helpful in the office. In addition to giving and supporting others, lend support in ways that illustrate your abilities, expertise and growth edge. Try volunteering and becoming active in an industry group or cause you believe in. By doing so, you increasing your visibility, showcase your skills and support a cause greater than yourself.
2. Be collaborative
According to Vongalis-Macrow, collaboration is another arena where women's contributions are lagging. She found that "only 14% collaborated on projects as a way to network." One woman refrained from collaboration because "'she did not believe she would gain any benefit.'"
In fact, the opposite is true! Jump on opportunities to collaborate, especially with cross-functional teams or departments. It is among the most powerful ways that others, across a broad spectrum of roles in your organization, can see you in action while sharing in a process of getting results that matter. Collaborations is a proven method for effective networking. Within the framework of collaboration, your skills and expertise are on display, while teamwork and trust enhance and amplify your group's results.
3. Grow your trust-factor
For collaborations to reach their full potential, research shows that trust is a crucial factor. In a self-powering cycle, trust holds collaborations together, while collaborations amplify trust.
The Lincoln Business School at the University of Lincoln produced a study, "Trust formation processes in innovative collaborations: networking as knowledge building practices" which found "enduring trust stems from collaboration."
4. Articulate career aspirations
You must have a clear vision of your next steps, your career goals and be able to vocalize those professional plans within the scope of networking conversations. Be public about your ambition.
Vongalis-Macrow reported that "When networking, women did not articulate and make clear their work or career goals ... Only 4% admitted to talking about their career aspirations to others." For whatever reason women downplay this crucial conversation, whether to soft pedal ambitions or downplay goals for fear of not meeting them (and consequently appearing to fail).
Over time, we've talked to all kinds of people about their visions. When the timing was right, the perfect collaborators emerged. (But they wouldn't have if they had kept their visions secret!)
5. Network inside your organization
In addition to actual team collaborations inside your company, large organizations have had great success with internal networking via affinity groups. Center for Talent Innovation CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett says, "These networks nourish career advancement, connecting women to colleagues in different departments, providing opportunities to learn and practice leadership skills, and boosting their confidence to take the next step."
However, Hewlett recommends going beyond such groups, warning that they can devolve into gripe sessions. Take internal networking to the next level, as her book title, "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor," suggests. Find a personal advocate in a senior position who will facilitate career moves. He or she will "make introductions to the right people, translate and teach the secret language of success [...] directly intercede on your behalf to create a different reality for you."
Among the leading companies who are actively engaging in this level of what Hewlett terms "strategic matchmaking," you'll find names like American Express, Deloitte, Citibank and Cisco. Sometimes in conjunction with local businesses or management schools, these companies team up high-potential future leaders with current leaders willing to show the way to the C-suite.
6. Configure your own "old girl" network
Is there a female model for networking? Many networking approaches still carry a traditional "male-centeredness." To counter this, numerous organizations are springing up to serve women in diverse disciplines using all kinds of models. There's no one-size-fits-all. Be skeptical when someone tells you there is.
The following list includes emerging and growing women's groups to help them build their own networks:
7. Try a side-by-side approach
Even if you don't find golf interesting, rethink it as a networking possibility, especially when you need to connect professionally with a male colleague. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., from Rutgers University, author of "Why Him, Why Her," explained in Forbes that when men do things together, it is at the heart of what connects them. She indicates, "Over the millennia males went from the silent companionship of hunting together to similar side-by-side types of activities such as golf."
Giving a focus to activities versus conversing – the way women typically build connections – can seem an unnatural mode for a woman trying to connect. However, Fisher suggests, "accompanying them on any kind of sports outing – it rings in the male brain."
8. Play to win-win
Fisher notes men's inclination to compartmentalize when networking, usually focusing on a specific, short-term request. Women, on the other hand tend to connect on multiple levels. Women take a broader perspective and are more willing and proactive with ongoing nurturing of their professional relationships. They are willing to take the long view and build a relationship even when there isn't an immediate exchange. Notes Meghan Casserly in Forbes, "In many cases this give-and-then-take style of networking builds long-lasting relationships that can lead to future job placements, sales leads and partnerships."
One of the biggest challenges of networking is juggling the world of givers and takers. It's frustrating to make a connection with someone who constantly takes and takes, then takes some more without any sense of reciprocity. Women, historically the givers, aren't always strong on making a specific request as part of a two-way exchange. Many women may build relationships without an agenda to professionally benefit from the connection. Men often have a specific, often immediate-term end goal in mind.
It is time for networking to incorporate the best of all available approaches. For more than a decade, Melissa's book, "Networlding" has championed "the exchange," where both parties benefit – win-win.
Woman may have a natural advantage because they are more likely to consider an integrated view of their networked colleagues, with the goal of forming mutually beneficial relationships across both personal and professional lines. In contrast, some networkers, mostly though not exclusively men, network insofar as they form connections to fulfill a present need. The downside is that they may not maintain the relationship for the long term.
In taking the Networlding approach, making connections that matter is key. The goal is to listen, ask good questions and give first. By sharing your authentic story, you are poised as an attractor of possibility and opportunity. Networlding is also about adopting a pay-it-forward attitude for making introductions and sharing information and connections. It's not a gender-specific process. Anyone – and everyone – can benefit from the Networlding way.
Good luck in 2014!
Melissa G. Wilson is the the author of "Networlding." Her firm of the same name is a business and social networking coaching, training and speaking company and now a book coaching and ghostwriting firm. Follow her @networlding.
Lisa Chau is the Founder of Alpha Vert, a private consultancy focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business strategy at Baruch College and The New School.