When it comes to creating opportunities in business, the old adage is true – it’s not what you know but who you know.
Networking, whether at an individual or organisational level, can be the lifeblood of a successful professional career.
But for many women, networking doesn’t always make it to the top of a very long to-do list. In the elusive work-family-life juggle, it can seem time-consuming and even awkward.
While women’s networking organisations offer outstanding platforms for online support, events, discussion and community there are also simple beginner-steps to creating valuable business connections.
With 20 years of experience in organisational development, leadership and marketing, Deakin commerce alumnus Mara McDonald uses her passion for communication and networking to create positive workplace cultures.
Currently the Learning and Development Manager for Adroit Insurance Group, she is responsible for the growth of 120 staff and their teams. Balancing her career with family responsibilities, she says networking has been professionally pivotal.
‘Networking has been hugely important in my career. I don’t think I’ve had a formal interview since my first job in London - “interviews” have always been casual conversations based on networks or referrals,’ she says.
Due to family career breaks, she says women have traditionally worked harder to establish and maintain professional networks. 'But with [digital] disruption, the global economy and expanding IT capabilities, women are now getting a bigger piece of the pie and together we can ensure this continues.’
For women at the beginning of their networking journey, Mara says the best approach is start with the right mindset.
‘Networking is really only relationship building and we do that naturally. Just be yourself and learn about those you work with or meet in your industry. Try to go to as many networking functions in your industry as you can – lift your profile, have people know what you do, and learn who is who.’
For women with an established career, she says it’s important to ensure a diverse network - in age, gender, ethnicity and geography.
‘The first time I did a network map, I realised most were either the same age as me or five years older, no-one was five years younger! I had some work to do. This helps me stay current, broadens my perspective and helps me grow. Nobody wants only vanilla ice cream all the time. We all need different flavours and diversity in your network provides this.’
But what about those who are more introvert than extrovert or find making new connections more stressful than stimulating?
‘Start small and go to events that interest you as you’ll find likeminded people and it will be easier to chat,’ she suggests. ‘Try a breakfast networking function where there’s usually allocated seating and also plan ahead by having a few open-ended questions and topics of conversation. It’s also really important to think “quality over quantity” – don’t put pressure on yourself.’
This is where online social networking can help. Done well, it can promote a professional profile and also provide a variety of platforms for different networking purposes.
‘For a long time I didn’t understand Twitter but it’s now my favourite for professional development,’ says Mara. ‘I’ve connected with people all over the world who work in the L&D space and we exchange ideas, talk about current trends and find out what’s going on globally. Depending on your industry, Instagram and Facebook are also very relevant and LinkedIn is a must for any professional.’
Her advice is to think of networking in three parts – before, during and after.
‘”Before” is getting your mindset right. Networking is not about handing out your business card to as many people as possible and asking for business or a job – it’s about building trust and developing relationships. “During” is asking questions, listening actively and having fun. And “after” is always following up – with an email, hand written note or a LinkedIn request with a personalised note.’