On your career journey, you may have been told to “build a network.” Truth is, we build a network from the moment we’re born. Every interaction that is more than passing is part of your network. In some ways, networks are like seeds: some blow in, take root and flourish; some we deliberately plant and nurture and some blow out again, never taking root.
A well-cultivated network can help women overcome hidden pitfalls, brick walls and glass ceilings. As far as women have come in the business world, we still haven’t reached equality with men when it comes to representation in the C-suite. While many entrepreneurs are women, as business owners women fail more often than men.
To have a truly bountiful network, you need male and female connections. Connections with other women often create a safe place to ask the “stupid” question, express doubts and fears, and share the pie-in-the-sky idea or dream – and receive support in return rather than judgment, pat answers or condescension.
While women in business during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s may have been competing for the same few spots for token females, today the female factor has created something of a sisterhood of support and encouragement.
Women want to succeed, and want other women we know and respect to succeed also. That desire is often strongest in industries that continue to be male dominated – such as financial services.
Today’s business environment provides fertile ground for women to grow a powerful, action-focused network. Like a garden, your network grows best with cultivation – seeding, feeding and weeding.
Letting seeds blow into your network garden will definitely get you a variety of growth – but not necessarily the kind that helps your career. You need to seed your network by proactively connecting with people.
Some business gurus recommend a planned network where you review your existing connections, identify gaps or areas that need building, and then reach out to experts or leaders in those areas to make connections. Others prefer a more natural approach, where you make an effort to connect during your normal activities but not necessarily with specific people for a specific reason.
Seed your network with contacts likely to produce results by using these approaches:
• Regardless of age, gender, occupation or geography, every relationship has potential. Grow diversity in your network by seeking out connections outside your comfort zone.
• Make your connections meaningful. A few thoughtful conversations that leave both parties interested in learning more will be worth more than a stack of business cards.
• Consider where you want to go professionally and personally, and evaluate your network. Do you have connections you will need to reach your goals? If not, ask others in your network for recommendations and introductions. Follow up with a personal note that includes your areas of expertise that the contact may find helpful.
• Networking is give and take. If you approach new contacts by finding out how you can help them, you should never feel awkward about asking them to help you.
Like a garden, your network needs care and feeding to nurture results.
• Be friendly toward your connections, but not every connection should become a friend. As much as you may feel an instant connection with a new contact, keep it professional in the beginning and let closer friendships evolve over time.
• Consider organizing your connections in a Contact Relationship Management (CRM) system that
lets you track communications and details. A system that sorts by geography, occupation or employer can help you quickly locate the right contact. It can also help you spread out your requests by tracking the last time you emailed or spoke to a contact, the topic and the outcome.
• Say “thank you.” Email may be enough for simple requests. Other situations may call for a handwritten card or even a small, tasteful gift that shows you know something about the other person. For example, sending a coffee mug with your company’s logo feels more like selling and less like thanking. If you know the contact is a coffee connoisseur, send a bag of gourmet beans or a mug from the city where you met.
• Make useful introductions. Introducing people because they have minimal similarities – like age or gender – wastes your time and theirs.
• Ask your contacts how you can be helpful – and note their answers in your CRM system. Group similar
answers together. For example, people interested in jobs with your company or people looking to relocate to your city.
• Do what you say you’re going to do when you said you would do it. This can be challenging when you have dueling priorities like career, family and community service. Contacts will think of you more highly if you make fewer promises and deliver more than expected than if you deliver bare minimum on many items.
• Stay in touch. Periodically review your network for those you haven’t communicated with lately. Make a list of three to five names. When you find something of interest – a new connection, an article or an upcoming event – send an email or note with an invitation to coffee to catch up.
At some point, we all come across people from whom we would prefer to disconnect; people who have overstepped the relationship, called on our goodwill too many times or are in a situation with which we prefer not to be associated. Weeding your network may not happen often, but when it does, keep in mind a few tips:
• Don’t burn bridges. As upset or angry as you may be, keep your final communications professional and factual. In today’s age of instant online sharing, that email vent that made you feel momentarily satisfied can quickly leave you embarrassed and permanently discredited.
• Be clear. If you find yourself wanting to maintain a connection but redefine some boundaries, be specific about what you are willing and not willing to do. For example, “I am happy to continue receiving your newsletter, but I prefer not to receive any solicitations for contributions.”
• Offer a compromise or alternate idea. Maybe a connection is contacting you too frequently. Rather than avoiding calls, let them know how often or when you would be available. “I love our discussions about the future of employer retirement plans. Why don’t we set up a quarterly lunch where we can catch up on developments in that area?”
Many companies value networking opportunities specifically for women to create a safe place for discussion that tends not to occur with men in the mix. While not intended to exclude men, these groups often develop a communication style and culture that is distinctly feminine.
The Ladenburg Institute of Women and Finance, for example, brings together female financial professionals and home office staff from the five broker-dealers owned by Ladenburg Thalmann – Securities America, Investacorp, Triad Advisors, SSN and KMS – along with sister subsidiaries Highland Capital Brokerage, Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management and Premier Trust Company.
“It’s been exciting to participate in the growth of women financial professionals forums within the organization, starting with Securities America and continuing with Ladenburg,” said Amy Lipsitz, chief executive officer of L & M Financial in New York. “It is probably the most impactful thing that has happened in my career, to be able to communicate with other women who are doing exactly what I’m doing. It’s a new way of thinking, and I think the opportunity women financial professionals are getting in this organization is exciting.”
Financial professional Judi Mohr of North Carolina wasn’t necessarily looking for a strong, women's financial professional network when she decided to look at a new broker-dealer and ultimately chose Securities America.
“I am just delighted with the fact that female financial professionals are embraced here,” Mohr said. “I’ve been doing this 27 years now, and this is the first time I’ve ever been invited to be part of a community of women financial professionals. Don’t get me wrong. We love going to meetings with our male counterparts, but when we get together as just women, we tend to talk to each other a little differently. Some of the subjects that are concerns for us as mothers, as wives, as sisters, are intuitive for us to talk about, but we normally don’t talk about them when we’re with a general audience.”