Being in the Right Room: Networking Professionally for Professional Women

Businessteam wrapping up a meeting with handshakeby Elizabeth Harrin (London)

“It’s not what you know, or who you know but who knows you,” advised Gwen Rhys to the business women and men in attendance at the Chartered Management Institute’s City Branch meeting in London last week.  “Today’s flatter, leaner structures mean it’s not about the number of people you command but the sphere of your influence.” In other words: networking. 

Rhys was speaking on board HQS Wellington, moored alongside Temple on the Thames in London, England.  Around 100 people had come to the breakfast event, including the Lady Mayoress Lin Luder, and representatives from financial and consulting firms across the city. 

Rhys, founder of Women in the City, explained that leaders have a knack of knowing who to tap for information and when.  In today’s economy, successful networking is important, not least because research shows that women with strong networks earn more. 

Employees with effective networks can settle into new situations more easily because they have a global support framework.  This makes them easier to recruit, and it doesn’t take them as long before they are contributing to the organisation in a highly productive way. 

Rhys also explained how networking ensures you are on ‘the inside track’ and it will help you come to sound conclusions because you have open and useful communication channels.  For example, she cited the situation many women find themselves in when reaching senior positions: falling off the Glass Cliff, a term coined by Dr Michelle Ryan at Exeter University.  The Glass Cliff, an updated version of the glass ceiling concept, refers to the fact that women and members of other minority groups are more likely to get leadership positions in which it is hard to succeed.  Women do well to achieve these positions but fall at the last hurdle, and Rhys believes this is because men have already turned these opportunities down, knowing them to be “the job from hell.”  Women, who are less likely to have the insider information to make the same conclusions, say yes to the precarious management role and end up failing, with all the knock-on implications for their own confidence and the likelihood of their organisation to promote other women. 

Networking is also about being able to connect cross- and inter-departmentally, and trans-nationally.  Having a strong network allows you to benchmark your performance against other people and raise your profile at the same time.  In difficult times, breaking down organisational silos can be the right way to get things done, and networking can help with that.  Mentors and coaches can be sourced through networking, and you can find the right type of mentor for you.  Research shows that when women have female mentors the greatest benefit they report is the increase emotional support.  When women have male mentors, they report that the greatest benefit is access to his network and knowledge.  Having a wide network will mean you can choose different mentors for different reasons.  

In short, if you don’t network, you’re not likely to ever make it to the top. 

However, networking is not just handing out your business cards to everyone you meet.  While there is a social element, the overall objective is to seek out and become acquainted with new people for your professional goals. 

“It’s less about working the room and more about being in the right room,” said Rhys.  It’s the quality of the relationship which means you can leverage the opportunity, she explained.  A business card in your purse does not equal a relationship – but if you can sustain relationships with those people who are the best fit for your professional goals you will no doubt reap the rewards later. 

The language of networking can put people off: after all, who wants to be ‘networked’ by someone else?  Rhys herself tries to steer clear of the word, preferring to talk about “building and leveraging relationships.” 

The purpose of the breakfast event was to gather to listen to Rhys and the open Q&A session afterwards in which the attendees debated flexible working and the pay gap amongst other things, but also to network with the other people present.  From the sound of the conversations, some of the attendees – from completely different organisations and industry sectors – greeted each other as if they already had established professional relationships.  Notes were swapped and phone numbers of other people passed on, which just proves that a fat contacts book is only half the story when it comes to getting the most out of networking.