Chapter 3: Networking, or Having Great Conversations
This is chapter three of a five-part series called A Handbook for the Next Generation of Ambitious Female Leaders. The series is based on 18 interviews from top women and aims to empower young women in the transition from university to their first full-time workplace. Read the intro to this project here, chapter one here and chapter two here.
We may all have heard the saying, “it’s about who you know, not what you know”. Well, why do we bother going to university at all if that’s true?
OK — it’s not all about who you know, but who you know certainly helps.
“I’m more likely to green-light a hire if I know of the person” — Susan Credle
All women featured in this project agreed that being able to build and sustain a network is an extremely powerful skill, calling it “super important” and even “critical”.
In the survey I administered among young people around the world currently undergoing this transition from university to first full-time job, 20% of respondents had a ‘non-existent’ network and one third of respondents were working on establishing one without seeing value in it. And some young people who have established somewhat of a network in numbers, struggle to maintain it beyond the mere list of names it becomes.
So there’s a gap here:
All these seasoned women consider a network incredibly important, and too many young people are passive players in the networking game. As young women, will we just need to take their word for it?
I’d argue yes.
The benefits of building and sustaining a professional network are far reaching.
But it’s absolutely true that networking can take a lot of time and effort.
You have to meet and talk to new people, follow up, keep in contact… all for what? Why should young women network in the first place?
Well, for one, several women shared that it was only for their first job that they applied with the traditional (and sometimes tedious) CV and motivation letter. The jobs that followed were opportunities coming from the network that they had established over the years. That’s pretty amazing.
Carlota Casellas added that she managed to land a job in marketing, an entirely different position than what she initially had, because her previous boss really trusted and recommended her. If you have a good network, you’ll be presented with more exciting jobs and projects.
On a similar note, some of the women who are (or were) working freelance shared that they never have to apply for jobs anymore. It all happens through connections they’ve carefully established and nurtured since the first meeting.
Not to mention that a lot of the best jobs are not even advertised online. You can’t apply in the traditional sense. These positions are filled by someone who knows someone who knows someone…
And sometimes, your network is your career. As is the case with Laura Forsyth, 26, Global Recruitment Director at her company. The more meaningful her relationships are, the better she’s doing her job.
“Your biggest network is the one you build by just doing your job” — Vivan Opsteegh
An interesting thing that came up in some conversations about networking was that you don’t actually need to try so hard. Over the years your network will expand automatically.
The biggest and best network is the one you build just by doing your job. This is a circle of people that we’re not always very active in maintaining. Nevertheless this group is incredibly important. Acknowledge them, listen actively and be nice.
In addition to that, ‘formal’ networking events are always a good idea. If you’re the type, attending conferences can do wonders for your network and subsequent career. Being young (and still studying) gives you the advantage of cheaper, or sometimes free tickets to these.
Also, have a look online at the meet ups that are going on in your city. Join a Lean In circle, a running club or attend a barista class at that café around the corner. What’s great about these local meet ups is that everyone who attends has something in common. There’s a meet up for everything and many are free.
If you don’t find one you’re interested in, start your own. Don’t be afraid to take initiative. Personally, it has been through attending and hosting events like these that I further discovered my own personality and interests.
“Don’t network, have great conversations” — Antoinette Hoes
Most women agreed that networking is an act of giving. A natural byproduct of that is others giving back to you. What goes around comes around.
The art of conversation is a forgotten skill, and most people prefer to put their heads down and scroll through Instagram aimlessly. Granted, talking to new people takes courage.
But, it’s worth cultivating. You’ll learn that people aren’t actually scary — they’re pretty much exactly like you. Regardless of their position or experience.
Overcome that self-inflicted insecurity and introduce yourself to everyone. Take a real interest in people. Good networking isn’t about talking to as many people in the room as possible. It’s about having more in-depth and interesting conversations with a handful of them. This is where ‘quality over quantity’ couldn’t ring more true.
On that note, connect with those you like and respect. Learn from the others then move out of their circle. The more you curate your network the more valuable it will become.
“Connecting, sharing and giving are the most important values to bring yourself and others to the next level” — Fleur Willemijn van Beinum
It’s not enough to simply sit back and watch your list of connections on LinkedIn grow longer as the months go by. Instead, see how many of those relationships you can nurture in meaningful ways. Engage with your network.
For example, when you see a connection update their job title, send them a quick, personalised note wishing them good luck — without necessarily engaging them in a conversation. I have noticed that these small gestures can go a long way in nurturing professional relationships.
And finally, for young people who feel behind in the networking game, you’re not. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”