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We know we should do it. Everyone says so. Especially now, when things are tighter than ever.

No, we’re not talking about diet or exercise or clothes that, um, shrunk in the wash. It’s networking that’s the “should,” and experts say that in these days of shrinking employment opportunities and the “hidden” job market, it’s whom you know and whom they know that are crucially important.

Six secrets of successful networkers
1. Take it easy. Start with who’s in your address book, Palm, email lists, Rolodex.

2. Make it fun. Join groups that make you feel good, not those you dread attending.

3. Be a home girl. What could be simpler than online networking at home in your pjs?
4. Make it second nature. Ask everyone you meet for business cards, and email addresses; add them all to your online networks.

5. Diversify, diversify, diversify. Just because you’re a builder and she’s a banker doesn’t mean you can’t network-and you can both profit.

6. Lend a hand. Go the extra mile to help other women in your network. They’ll remember you.

But networking isn’t just for getting a job or an interview for one; if you’re a woman who owns her own business, is in sales, or who wants a leg up, “Making sure that you have a variety of great people in your network is the difference between your being mediocre or fabulous,” said networking expert Mary Kurek, author of “Who’s Hiding in Your Address Book? Introducing the Ideal Network for Successful Women.”

Beyond wine and cheese

Online or in person? Should I develop my LinkedIn network or spend face time at local events? Both, said networking veteran Liza Etienne, and she ought to know: She’s been building her network for nearly 20 years.

When Etienne first started networking, she sent letters-as in, with stamps-and followed up with phone calls. “That’s so archaic now,” she laughed. According to Etienne, emailing contacts is both efficient and de rigueur.

Today, LinkedIn is one of her networking tools. While Etienne hasn’t gotten a job directly that way (yet), she has gotten job interviews, and she’s used the site to research jobs she’s applying for or companies that interest her; by making contacts with current employees of the companies she’s targeting, Etienne has gotten inside information and names to drop at the interview.

She networks in person, too. Etienne’s a member (and past board member) of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, and attends the organization’s events. She also attends gatherings of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers-even though she is not a member, and doesn’t aspire to be an engineer. “It’s a misconception that there’s no value in networking with people outside your field,” Etienne said. “You never know how you might be able to help each other out.”

That’s a lesson she learned young. Etienne consciously committed to what she terms “the networking lifestyle” while an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. While some classmates planned no farther ahead than the next exam or party, Etienne, who’d settled on a career in marketing and communications, delved into networking.

Her approach was simple, and effective. She’d scan a marketing industry magazine for blurbs about people who had been promoted. Then she sent them a letter saying, in a nutshell, congratulations-and by the way, I’d love to buy you lunch and chat about your career path.

“Every single person I wrote to said yes,” Etienne recalled; she estimates she met with 40-50 people during her undergraduate years.

At that point, she was mainly seeking advice. One of her lunch dates told her: “Network, network, network.” It became a her mantra.

“I heard that, with a career in marketing, you’ll get laid off many times,” she said, adding with a laugh: “And I have.” She’s gotten most of her jobs through networking. She’s currently working her network as she hunts for her next job.

Locally speaking

According to experts and a quick Google search, the opportunities to network both locally and online are limitless. One Twin Cities-based organization is Women in Networking (WIN).

WIN is growing fast, reports director Teresa Thomas-Carroll, who said the organization’s monthly breakfast meetings have been selling out. The high demand led to the organization’s recent decision to add a monthly lunch session.

Thomas-Carroll stresses the supportive nature of WIN over tangible job-related results. Most members also belong to networks specific to their field, “but when people come [to WIN events], they feel so supported-they don’t have to act like they have all the answers,” she said. “They’re there to make meaningful connections, not to just randomly hand out business cards or make a sale.”

Most WIN members are business owners, law-firm partners or business-to-business sales reps, Thomas-Carroll said. One or two “women in [career] transition” typically attend each event, seeking contacts and inspiration.

She’s heard anecdotal reports of women finding jobs or clients through WIN, but mainly, they come to get their “batteries recharged,” Thomas-Carroll said. “I hear that a lot.”

She doesn’t see the trend toward online networking as a threat to the in-person version.

“I think it enhances it,” Thomas-Carroll said. If you meet someone at an event, for example, “it’s easier to follow up and stay in touch if you’re both on LinkedIn or Facebook.”

Full-time networker

Though Lisa Hendrickson calls herself “a very social person,” she prefers smaller groups to networking events that draw dozens of people. “You need to do what feels comfortable to you,” she said.

Hendrickson’s business, Call That Girl, does computer repair, installation and troubleshooting. But for a period of about three months, she said, “Networking was my full-time job.”

She took the “kitchen sink” approach-joined associations, attended monthly meetings, made the rounds of quarterly expos, attended gatherings as a guest, and passed out business cards at events ranging from the GLBT Pride Festival in Loring Park to a 1950s car show at the Fairgrounds. She also checked out the Direct Selling Women’s Alliance (“If you sell something, whether Tupperware or Pampered Chef-type products, you can join”).

“I went to as many things as I could to meet people,” Hendrickson recalled. “Then I started getting a little smarter.”

Among her smartest moves: renting a booth at the three-day Minneapolis Women’s Expo in January 2008. “That launched my business big-time,” Hendrickson said. “It just boomed.”

She met women business owners, made contacts and was invited to speak to other groups. Hendrickson worked hard to build her business (she just celebrated one year since going full time), but noted that sometimes, things come from simply being in the right place at the right time-and taking advantage of it.

For example, Hendrickson happened to dine out one evening and discovered that the establishment hosts a “Girls’ Night Out” to which vendors were allowed to come and pass out business cards. She asked to participate, “and they said, ‘Sure.'”

“I’m an asker,” she said. “And usually, people say yes. But a lot of people are timid and don’t ask.” Hendrickson is also good at asking people to join her LinkedIn network; so far, she’s up to about 564 contacts. Why so many? Hendrickson explained that it’s not just whom you know, it’s whom they know, too. Many of those on her LinkedIn networks have large networks, too. It’s a virtually unlimited universe, she said: “You can go there to find anything.”

‘A woman thing’

The National Association of Women Business Owners calls itself the only dues-based national organization representing the interests of all women entrepreneurs, with over 8,000 members in nearly 80 chapters-including Minnesota. NAWBO holds regular networking events, including wine and appetizer gatherings.

Dr. Maria Aagesen-Reznecheck became the Minnesota chapter president in June. Her current excitement about NAWBO contrasts with her initial impression. When she first attended a couple of its events a number of years ago, Aagesen-Reznecheck recalled, “I wasn’t 100 percent impressed.” But a few years later, “I started hearing this buzz and thought, hmm-something’s happening.” She gave NAWBO another chance-this was seven or eight years ago-and found the energy and excitement that was missing earlier.

What sets the group apart?

According to Aagesen-Reznecheck, it’s the focus on growing the members’ businesses. “There is some emphasis on relationship-building,” she said, “but a ton on building your business”-something women might not get elsewhere.

“I’m a great chiropractor,” she said with a chuckle, “but they don’t teach you a lot about business at chiropractic school.”

Aagesen-Reznecheck echoed WIN’s Thomas-Carroll in speaking of her group’s supportiveness.

“The women are very open, very caring-and willing to share information,” Aagesen-Reznecheck noted. “I’m not sure I get that as much with some of the mixed [gender] groups,” such as the Chamber of Commerce. “Maybe it’s sort of a ‘woman thing.'”

‘Too intense’

According to WIN’s website:
“Our philosophy is welcoming and noncompetitive. Membership is not restricted to one person per industry or employment type, we do not require lead quotas, and we do not have a policy against membership with other networking organizations.”

Can it really be true that some networking groups discourage, well, networking?

Thomas-Carroll confirmed that some organizations do have policies that restrict the amount of networking, and/or vet prospective members. One of the largest allows only one person per professional classification per chapter, and prospective members must be approved via an application process. Some other groups, Thomas-Carroll said, allow prospective members to attend only one or two functions before joining up.

“I’m not putting them down-for some people, that works really well, but for others it’s a little too intense,” Thomas-Carroll said. “We want people to feel sure it’s a good fit for them, without pressure.”

Aagesen-Reznecheck can attest to the time commitment. Even though NAWBO has outsourced a lot of duties to its management company, as board president, “a day will not go by that I don’t work on something NAWBO-related,” she said. But for her, even with the demands of running her business, it’s worth it.

“I love NAWBO-it’s a wonderful group,” she said.

Pay it forward

As the networking omniverse expands, is a backlash brewing? “Lately, networking has started getting a more negative connotation,” Aagesen-Reznecheck reflected. She suspects that’s because some people go into it thinking only about what they can get out of it-not what they can offer.

“You can go into a room and tell who those folks are in a matter of minutes,” she said. “We need to think of [networking] as a two-way street.”

Longtime networker Liza Etienne agreed.

“Some people forget to pay it forward,” she said. “They lose their job and then it’s ‘Oh, I need to network now!’-instead of laying that groundwork and making it part of everyday life.”

Read About It

Some of our favorite books on networking include:

Make Your Contacts Count: Networking Know-How for Business And Career Success by Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon

Who’s Hiding in Your Address Book?: Introducing the Ideal Network for Successful Women by Mary Kurek

The Truth About Profiting from Social Networking by Patrice-Anne Rutledge

A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market by Katharine Hansen

Build Your Network

Ready to get started-or re-started-networking? Local and online resources include:

Women in Networking
A Twin Cities-based organization in which women encourage each other’s professional growth and business success. Hosts monthly breakfast and lunch meetings.

National Association of Women Business Owners
NAWBO calls itself the only dues-based national organization representing the interests of all women entrepreneurs in all industries. Over 8,000 members in nearly 80 chapters, including Minnesota.

An online network of more than 25 million people from 150 industries around the world. Members create a profile summarizing their professional accomplishments. Your profile helps you find and be found by former colleagues, clients, and others. You add connections by inviting trusted contacts to join LinkedIn and connect to you. Your network consists of your connections, your connections’ connections, and so on.