Businessmen know the secret to success: the old boy network has put more than one man in the executive suite. It works because people tend to pass out opportunities, do business, and associate with other professionals based on similarity and comfort level. Breaking into the old boy network, however, hasn’t been—and still isn’t—a viable option for many women.
“For years, there were no socially acceptable spaces where women—especially ethnic women—and the white male power-structure could intersect,” says Jessica Carter, attorney and author of Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America.
“Even today, leadership circles are made up of mostly white men,” says Stacy Blake-Beard, associate professor of management at Simmons School of Management. “Unfortunately, women, particularly women of color, may be at a disadvantage because of lack of access to those leaders and a level of unfamiliarity with them that may impede the development of important career relationships. Diversifying our networks provides opportunities and resources for creating alliances with people who can connect us to those in power.”
Diversifying Your Network at Work
Your own company is a valuable resource for diversifying your network and building strategic alliances up, down, and across the organization. Many companies have established women’s initiatives and forums and support affinity or cultural groups for employees.
“Networking at work can help you develop friendships, broaden your perspective, and identify career and mentoring opportunities,” says Annette Martinez, operations executive assistant at State Farm, which has 120 different employee resource groups. “If you work for a large organization, you need the increased visibility that networking affords. Networking at work isn’t difficult, but it should be deliberate. Start by deciding what you want to accomplish in the next five years. What do you need to do this? Who can help you get what you need? Create a personal board of directors by identifying 10 to 15 areas of the company where you want to create connections, and meet with these people regularly.”
If your company doesn’t support formal networking, start your own informal network. “Look for opportunities to connect with team members and colleagues based on mutual interests, projects, and skills,” advises Barbara Adachi, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP in San Francisco, and head of the company’s Women’s Initiative. “It’s never too early to start building your company network.”
Diversifying Your Network Outside of Work
“Building relationships with a variety of people outside the job can help you expand your sphere of influence in new areas,” says British Hill, program chair of Pinellas County Networking Professionals International in Florida and independent consulting director with Seriesse International.
Joining local business organizations like the chamber of commerce and service organizations can connect you with people from different cultures, professions, and interests. If you’re in sales or own your own business, these organizations can be rich sources of potential customers and clients.
Also consider participating in affinity groups and volunteer activities to meet like-minded people who can expand your social network. Painting a school, cleaning a park, or building a home for Habitat for Humanity can help you overcome networking shyness. When everyone is focused on the task at hand, it’s easy to start conversations and get to know people.
Check the business calendar section of your newspaper and your local volunteer center or craigslist.com listings for events.
Diversifying with Online Networks
Online networks demand less time and commitment than in-person networking and can expand your reach exponentially. A single mouse click can connect you to someone in Africa or Asia—or across town.
“Internet networks expand your reach and can provide mutually beneficial connections more efficiently than face-to-face networking,” says Attiya Abdulghany, director of marketing for Salesconx, a B2B lead-generator for sales professionals. Abdulghany has used FaceBook and LinkedIn to stay in touch with college friends, develop professional connections, and find jobs.
LinkedIn has more than 17 million members. You create a personal profile and invite others to join your personal network. Savvy users recommend establishing fewer, high-quality connections rather than many connections of questionable value. Social networking sites such as FaceBook, once the domain of young people, are maturing along with their members. They give people the opportunity to make more personal connections than purely business networks.
“Commit a couple hours a week to building your virtual network,” Hill advises. “When you join a virtual network, complete your profile and participate in forums. Get known, and share information.”
Diversifying Within Your Network
“The higher you move within your career, the more your network matters,” says Marva Smith Battle-Bey, president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and of the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation. “Today, I work with senior-level government and elected officials, and my network has been a huge factor in my ability to get things done.”
Networks aren’t just about what you do, what you have done, and what you need—they’re also about who needs you and what you have to offer them.
“There is a quid pro quo in networking,” Smith Battle-Bex adds. “Don’t connect just with people you need. Connect with people who need you and what you have to offer. Men, I think, are more comfortable doing this. They more easily discuss their accomplishments. Many women are uncomfortable talking about what they have done and can do.”
This can be especially important for women who may be influenced by home upbringing and cultural background. “As a Japanese American, I was raised in a culture that expected me to stay in the background and not speak until spoken to,” states Deloitte’s Adachi. “Overcoming this reticence has been a challenge for me throughout my career. I believe that many ethnic women experience something like this. Networking provides a way of sharing experiences and solutions to these kinds of cultural challenges.”
You can diversify within your network by building win-win alliances and creating opportunities for cross-networking. Communicate regularly with people in your network, make introductions when people can help each other, and ask for introductions to people you think will help you. Encourage the members of your network to share success stories and make requests of each other. Create mini-networking events so members of your network can meet and mingle with each other, and ask them to bring new people into your network.
“Business networking is not just about what you do or how you do it,” says Caterina Rando, professional speaker, success coach, and author of Learn to Power Think. “It’s about building mutually beneficial relationships, helping each other overcome challenges, finding out what needs to be done, and doing it.”
Patricia Haddock is a communications and training consultant in San Francisco, and is the author of 11 books.