by Jeff Fleischer(Crain's Chicago Business, May 1, 2006)
Nancy Sharp likes her Saturday-morning networking meeting so much that she gets up at 7:30 a.m. to grab a cup of coffee and get there by 8:30.
“It’s really valuable because of the commitment of the members,” Ms. Sharp says of Levy Group, an invitation-only networking group she joined a year ago for support running Food for Thought, her Lincolnwood catering company. “The leader is the first to call on a Wednesday to see how a presentation went.”
For women who own their own companies, circulating is key to getting more clients and gaining more financial, management and sales expertise from others in similar businesses. The challenge, of course, is to find the right networks — and to keep the circle growing. Here are a few cardinal networking rules from Ms. Sharp and other veterans:
RULE #1: IDENTIFY YOUR PREY
Before attending an event, Diane Craig likes to pick out the women she wants to add to her Rolodex. She scans the list of registered attendees or searches the sponsor’s Web site to find their contact information. Then she shoots them an e-mail.
“I just send something simple, saying I’m looking forward to meeting them,” says Ms. Craig, former owner of the Label & Packaging Co. in Northbrook who now leads workshops on networking and certification for the Women’s Business Development Center. “Then I make sure to meet them, and send a follow-up about two days after the event. That way they’ve seen your name three times in a week.”
Unlike Ms. Craig, one of the biggest mistakes new networkers make is approaching events without a plan, says Lillian Bjorseth, a Lisle networking coach. “Most people don’t want to put that kind of work into networking; they just want to sign up and go,” Ms. Bjorseth says. “But you have to know who it is you want to meet and what your target market looks like.”
She recommends preparing four questions before an event to ask each person you meet and having an idea of what their answers should be to indicate you have shared business interests. That might mean asking whether they have contacts in your industry or have worked with a mutual acquaintance.
RULE #2: STICK TO BUSINESS
When making small talk, it’s best to stick to general subjects like television or current events. “Something where you can have an opinion but it isn’t highly charged,” Ms. Bjorseth says. “Maybe you like ‘The Apprentice,’ maybe you don’t, but people can have a reasonable discussion.”
The list of subjects to avoid goes beyond hot-button topics like politics and religion. Don’t spend too much time talking about family or your kids.
“It’s not always problematic, but I don’t suggest it,” Ms. Bjorseth says. “I’d rather have people asking about my business than my personal life. And in a mixed group, men usually aren’t as comfortable talking about those subjects.”
RULE #3: DIVERSIFY
Women-only groups are a good start. But stopping there is a mistake — especially when one of women’s biggest business challenges is getting access to money and power.
“We work in a man’s world and to only have single-sex networking events you can only go so far,” says Ms. Sharp, who belongs to six groups.
Ms. Sharp made one of her best contacts at a mixed networking event hosted by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce last year. During a conversation about mid-sizes business strategy with two male entrepreneurs, they referred her to a contact at Focus Enterprises Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based investment banking firm that specializes in growth strategies for companies with revenues between $5 million and $300 million.
“The Focus group connected me to banking, legal and consulting services that I would never have had access to, and has recommended us for many catered events,” she says.
Another way to expand your circle is to attend trade shows or conferences to make contacts face to face. It’s a lesson Ms. Bjorseth learned while working as a public relations manager at AT&T from 1979 to 1990.
“When I would attend trade shows, I would have time to talk to people when I was standing in the booth,” she says.