How to Build Career Connections Through Networking

“The number one mistake that women make in networking is to take the same approach to networking that we do to finding girlfriends”

Skilled at building relationships, women are born networkers. Yet many of us are afraid to exercise those skills, fearful that we’ll be seen as fakes or “schmoozers.”

This fear is holding us back, says Vanessa George, preventing us from realizing all of the opportunities that are available to us.

Director of development for the University of California San Francisco Children’s Hospital and previously the assistant director of UCSF’s Center for Gender Equity, George is a dedicated activist who loves to network. She presented “Making Connections That Count” in San Francisco at the May meeting of the Northern California Network of the American Council on Higher Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education.

Critical connections

 “How you connect with people determines your success in every area of life,” said George. And when you talk about forming connections, inevitably the word networking comes up.

Why is networking crucial? By cultivating relationships through networking, we can influence our career paths in many ways, including finding a new job, advancing in our careers, and receiving personal support. Indeed, many women admit that their careers are made and advanced through networking.

It’s critical, said George. Networking gives you access to information, resources and opportunities. It can help you to land a great job, school, project, event location, or even your “dream home.” More than 60% of positions are found via connections or networking. As we’ve all learned over time, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!” Most professional services, such as lawyers, plumbers and realtors, are found through networking.

Taking the lead in forming new relationships through networking is difficult for many women. Fearing the process and viewing it as an insincere exercise in fake conversation just to get what they want, women tend to stay within their comfort zones, wondering why others are succeeding and moving ahead.

Why do women dislike networking? Women say they don’t like bragging, it feels fake, it feels like they are using friends/people, they don’t like to ask for things, and that they should be able to do things on their own, without asking for assistance. Women say, “But we’re really not that close,” “I’m smart so I shouldn’t need help,” “I don’t want to impose,” or “If I do a good job I’ll be recognized.

Women simply have a difficult time networking, said George. We aren’t comfortable with bragging, and we don’t like to ask for things. The number one mistake that women make in networking, she said, is to take the same approach to networking that we do to finding girlfriends.

Women feel that to be authentic, they need to be best friends with someone before asking for their help. “Not everyone has to be your best friend,” she said. “Men know that they don’t have to be best friends to connect.”

By adopting so narrow a viewpoint on networking, we’re missing out. And it’s a shame, said George, because women are actually ideally suited to networking. We just need to reframe our perspective on it.

Building relationships

Networking is really about building relationships, at every level. It’s the opportunity to identify resources that are available to you, and offer them to other people. Think of networking as exchanging information. Ask for what you want, and be prepared to give something in return.

You have much to offer. You never know what someone might want or need from you. Ask yourself, “What do I have that you might need in order to be successful in your career or personal life?” Instead of thinking about networking as what you’re trying to get, think what you’re trying to give.

Networking is also about reaching out and finding the people who can be your champions. You’re partnering with people for success. No one has to do anything alone. You have the opportunity to create your own personal success team, consisting of sponsors, coaches, role models, friends and allies.

George led an exercise to help conference participants determine who is in their networks. It’s based on a worksheet prepared by Dr. Robin Denis Johnson of California State Polytechnic University titled “Who’s in Your Network? A Peek at Your Work Relationships.”

Explaining that networks are constructed from existing work relationships with clients/customers, current and potential coworkers, and community members, the worksheet helped participants to focus their attention on their own networks to become more strategic and inclusive in their relationships.

It divided meaningful developmental relationships into two categories: career functions and psychosocial functions. Strategic relationships can fulfill either function or both over time. They are reciprocal in that both participants gain support, although each person may receive different things from the other.

Career functions include:

  • Sponsorship – Someone formally recommending you for a project or job
  • Exposure – Informally, someone helping to raise your visibility or providing an introduction
  • Coaching – Providing advice, a consultation and/or a strategy to help you overcome obstacles
  • Protection – Making sure others in your organization don’t limit or harm you

Psychosocial functions include:

  • Role modeling – Demonstrating expected behavior patterns through their own actions
  • Acceptance – Letting you know that you are fine, capable and competent when you doubt yourself
  • Confirmation – Validating your beliefs, assumptions and understanding (saying, “ No, you’re not crazy”)
  • Friendship – Demonstrating genuine caring, which is different from “friendliness”

To perform the exercise on your own, write down the name of three people who perform the duties listed in each sub-category. Then take a good look at them. That’s your circle of influence.

“If you don’t think strategically about your network, you’ll find that everyone in your circle is at the bottom of your psychosocial group,” said George. That can limit you and your options. You need to build your network to include people who will propel you forward.

How to network

George listed four steps to effective networking:

  1. Figure out what you really want, and who you need to talk to. Determining who you want to talk to sounds simple, but you never know who can help you.

  2. Be prepared to tell others what you need. You have to learn to ask for what you want. One sample pitch: “I’d like to sit down and talk with you to figure out how you got to where you are today. What is your availability for a 30 minute phone call?” This “informational interview” tactic is very effective. People love to talk about themselves.
  3. Figure out what you can offer in return. That way you’re not opportunistic—it’s not all about you. This step is often hardest for women, because they feel they don’t have anything to offer. “Just because someone is at a different level doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to offer,” said George.

    You can offer guidance, resources, information, a new perspective or simply an ear. Having a sounding board can prompt people telling their life stories to learn new things about themselves. Another way to give back is to follow up with an article about something you two discussed.

  4. Always say thank you. This is crucial, George said. Find some way, shape or form to do it. In the back of your mind, as you’re networking, always know what you’re looking for during your exchange of information. Do you want a referral? An introduction?

    George divided the group by table for an exercise called “Building Your Network 101.” Each person introduced herself and her area of expertise, and then shared one thing she needed, such as a referral, an idea, project assistance, etc. The idea was for others at the table to offer suggestions on how they could help, or to refer the person to someone else. Participants were to exchange cards, making notes on the back.

Final tips

George stressed the importance of building on and using the power of informational interviews, opening yourself up and embracing meeting new people, and learning to be persistent. She also recommended developing your “elevator pitch,” making sure that you’re specific. What are you looking for, and can you describe it briefly?

Finally, she advised, be visible. Strive to find opportunities to help others and to share your expertise.

Contact Vanessa George at
or at 415.502.1758

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