Thursday, March 27, 2008

3/25 Meeting Notes - Developing an Effective Networking Strategy

Thank you to everyone who came out to our Tuesday evening meeting. The size of the group combined with the venue for our evening meetings isn’t really conducive to group discussions, so we break up into smaller groups. Since these aren’t facilitated discussions, the conversations typically veer from the topic at hand. Not that this is a bad thing. There is a lot of value that comes out of these more unstructured discussions. If nothing else, it provides the opportunity to meet and get to know other women you likely wouldn't meet otherwise. So, even if we weren’t necessarily talking about networking the entire time, we were practicing it!

I’ll be posting some of what I took away from the meeting but since I didn’t participate in every discussion, I’d like to encourage others who attended to post their comments to share what they took away from the conversations. In the first group I joined, I met someone who works for the same company I do and even provided IT support to some of our projects. Despite this, it was the first time I’d met her. So, despite the fact that I believe that I’m fairly well networked at work, this experience emphasized to me that there is always room for improvement. So, I’m making a commitment to make more of an effort to get to know those people who may be working behind the scenes and providing essential support to what we do.

One of my other take aways from the meeting was the challenge of networking when you’re different from the rest of the people in the organization. Examples include being significantly younger (or older) than other members of the team, being single when everyone else is married, having a different cultural background, being the lone female – any of these factors can make it more difficult to build your network. It’s not to say that it’s impossible, but you may need to work on different approaches depending on your particular situation.

I was reminded of a past assignment when I was responsible for supporting a group over in Singapore. There were lots of barriers to overcome. The group was primarily male, from many different cultures and had the additional challenge of a 12hour time difference. I quickly realized that if I was going to develop a network in that organization it was going to be up to me to initiate that process. I was able to do so using every tool available to me at the time. I began with lots and lots of early morning and late night phone calls. I keep the communication channels going through utilizing e-mail. When visiting the site, I always made time in my agenda for 1:1 meetings and invited people to join me for dinner or drinks after work in the evenings. Then when they were visiting Indy, I always made sure to return the favor by helping to entertain them during their off hours. Now several years, and several assignments later, I’m still in touch with many of those individuals, even those who have moved on to other companies.

What experiences do others have with working through barriers to build a network? Please share your stories here so that we can all learn from each other. One of my goals in starting this group is to build a network of women who can serve as resources for one another.

I’ve found time to catch up on my reading and ran across an article that inspired a true “Ah Ha” moment for me. I highly recommend tracking down “How Leaders Create and Use Networks” (Harvard Business Review, January 2007). The article helped me to realize that changing the way I approach networking could really transform both my effectiveness and future career success.

Over the years, I’ve had this same conversation with countless women. Why was a very accomplished woman who works hard and consistently delivers passed over for promotion or leadership role in favor of someone else whose chief accomplishment seemed to be the ability to schmooze?

It turns out that many of us may be using the wrong strategy when it comes to networking. In the article they define three distinct forms of networking “operational, personal and strategic.”

An “operational” network is one you use to get your job done effectively. It is typically internally focused within your own company, though can include external contacts such as vendors or suppliers. These are the people who can help you with a specific task at hand. Examples include someone from HR who can help you with a personnel issue, a person in IT to help you with a software problem, someone in Finance who can answer a budget question, etc. If you move to a new position, your operational network will likely need to change. A well developed operational network will maximize your efficiency in your current role.

A “personal” network focuses outside of your current organization. You build your personal network through meeting people with whom you share a common interest. You may be able to use these personal contacts later as a source for advice, referrals, mentoring, information, contacts, etc. It is not always evident how or when you may be able to leverage individuals in your personal network to achieve career goals. However you never know when a causual conversation with an acquaintance can lead to a great referral. By working on building a personal network you can develop valuable networking skills.

A “strategic” network is more future focused. As individuals advance in their careers, their focus needs to shift from being a technical expert and adept at completing specific projects to setting strategy and planning for the future of an organization. To successfully implement change, one needs to garner support and build alliances. This is where strategic networking comes in. If you have a strategic network in place you will have individual who will be able to help you better understand how your proposals may be received by others. They can also help to lobby support on your behalf. By far, this is the area of network most individuals neglect. They may see it as politicking or “playing the game”, but like it or not this strategic network can influence your success as a leader.

Upon reflecting upon the article, I realized that I could (and should) make some refinements in the way I approach networking. I feel that I have an extremely effective operational network. When someone asks me for help, I may not be able to answer the question directly but it’s rare when I don’t know someone to call who can answer the question. I also have a great personal network. I have lots of interests and more importantly, being a single “empty nester”, I have lots of free time to pursue these interests. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of wonderful and very interesting individuals. I count the fabulous women I’ve met through W&HT among those in my personal network.

When it comes to strategic networking however, I realize that I’ve put far less time and energy there. I have been one of those individuals who primarily focused on the task at hand. It’s not that I don’t have people at all levels and from outside my organization in my network. It’s that I’ve never really thought about how to leverage those individuals as part of my future career strategy. Maybe I should.

I have a few more organizations to add to the Networking groups list I began last week. Here are a few more suggestions:
Indiana Health Industry Forum
Indianapolis Hiking Club
Mickey's Camp

We’ll continue the discussion on networking next month but with a slightly different focus. Our April discussion group will look at the topic of virtual networking. There are lots of different tools out there. I’ll be looking into the different kinds of tools that are available and looking for strategies on how to use them more effectively. Any and all suggestions are welcome.

To help you plan ahead, the morning discussion group will meet once again at B Java on Tuesday April 15th at 6:45 am and the evening discussion group will meet on Tuesday April 22nd at 7 pm at D’Vine. I hope to see those of you who have attended in the past as well as see some new faces. All are welcome. If you’re not yet a member of W&HT, please feel free to attend as my guest!

I’m currently working on a list of topics for future meetings. I’d really like your suggestions. Please feel free to e-mail me or post your suggestions in the comment section below. I’m currently working on the following topics: Women & Philanthropy, Women & Leadership, a Reader’s Forum where people come and share their favorite book, magazine or article, Managing Communication Overload, Work Life Balance,

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