As a female entrepreneur I know how important the art of networking is to small business success. However, I also think some women in business way overthink networking to the point of paralysis by analysis.
I mean, I still have friends I've had since grade school. I'm still close to most former managers I reported to over the years. I am never am at a loss for business opportunities and my calendar remains full of fun.
I am actually known as an excellent networker, and I have ZERO official networking strategy.
Networking Should Be Authentic
It actually feels weird to me to consider staying in touch with people I care about and respect a form of "nurturing my network." In fact, as I was leaving lunch with my former hotel GM recently, with whom I have always shared a great deal of mutual trust, he mentioned that I was "great at networking" and "keeping in front of people" like him and others he knew that I kept up with regularly.
I had to pause.
I know it was a compliment, but for a nano-second I wondered if my authentic interest in my friends ever came off as calculated business strategy.
I told him I did not even want to think about life without people like him, who have been so important to my professional and personal growth. I didn't really see having our quarterly-ish lunches as networking, but in reality it absolutely is.
So I thought a lot about it when I got home and realized maybe looking at "networking" as a business strategy feels icky to female entrepreneurs. After all, women tend to be more about relationships and a little less about strategy than the average male.
That's why I want to encourage you that networking does not have to be forced. You do not have to rotate reaching out to people whose last names begin with A-D during the first week of the month, E-J during the second week of the month, etc...
It's freaking awesome that some people are that organized. Honestly, I do like it when I open an email from a friend who tells me what they are working on, asks me what I'm working on and then asks if there is anything they can help me with, even if I do know (s)he is routinely working through their contacts.
Realistically, though, that is not an email I could send. As much as I'd like to, I don't have time to help a fifth of my friends whose names with start with an E-J, and I'm going to bet that as a busy female entrepreneur you do not, either.
So instead, here are five ways you can nurture your network without overthinking it:
1. Spontaneously Check-In With Your Network
If I think of someone in my network, I shoot them an email or text, call them or add them to the "plan a visit" list in my Wunderlist app. I genuinely want an update and they are going to know that I sincerely care about them enough to check in on their happenings.
When you routinely touch base with people you truly care about, it is easier to ask for a favor or resource in the future because it comes from a natural place of relationship and not a, "Oh, hey. Long time, no talk. I need a favor from you."
And liking their cat videos on Facebook doesn't count. You should ask how they are doing in life, outside of Someecards and Kardashian gossip. Of course, drive time is the perfect time to catch up (with bluetooth enabled, of course).
Showing you are genuinely interested in your network through action will pay off for years to come.
2. Visit Your Network When You Travel
When planning a trip I consider who lives nearby my destination city and make time, if at all possible, to see them. I have driven hours to meet up with a friend or have met someone inside an airport coffee shop on a layover just for the opportunity to share a real hug and look into their eyes when they share their life and career with me.
While this may sound like an inconvenience, my kids personally know the friends whom I grew up with, my husband knows people I've met at conferences and in online groups and my life is fully integrated into the lives of people in my network.
When I reach out for help or need ideas to shorten a learning curve, how likely do you that I am a priority when I have always made individuals in my network a priority in my travel plans?
3. Share Opportunities With Your Network
When you find out about an opportunity that could benefit someone you know, reach out them to alert them or let them know you shared their name. In doing so, your peers know that you are going to bat for them in their absence and they will see the deposits you are making in your relationship bank account.
When you pour into your network, your network will more likely pour into you.
4. Seek Advice From Your Network
Ask for advice or recommendations from your network SMEs (subject matter experts). The one thing I do know for certain is that I don't know everything. I rely heavily on my network for ten-minute conversations, quick email advice or a brief text in search of someone's blessing before making a decision.
Personally, I'm honored when my friends and colleagues ask for my advice or recommendations, plus it give me an opportunity to keep up with what's going on in their lives. So while I may not have time for a potential slew of requests from friends with the last name starting with E-J, I could easily manage reciprocal one-off requests of this nature.
Creating a balanced relationship of seeking and sharing advice is an easy way to keep in touch with your network.
5. Connect With Your Network On Holidays
Send Christmas cards, or Thanksgiving or New Year's or Valentine's Day cards or whatever. Holidays are a great time to remind everyone you're alive and well. You can give an annual update and ensure everyone has your updated contact information. (Pro tip: Drop a contact card in the envelope since your email, phone number and website is not included in the return address.) Again, the natural law of reciprocation will likely land you on their holiday card lists, therefore keeping you up to date with their news, too.
Be a Natural Networker
These all may seem like oversimplifying engaging your network, but they are also natural ways to reach out to people who are genuinely important to you. If it doesn't feel forced, you are more likely to do it. As you can see, it is possible to nurture your network without overthinking it. So let go and simply be friendly with the friends you've already made.