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Networking is a critical leadership skill, but it is something many people, particularly women can feel deeply ambivalent about. People often ask, “how do I get comfortable with it, and if it doesn’t come naturally isn’t it therefore inauthentic?”.

The answer is always the same. First, getting good at new things is rarely comfortable to begin with, and second, if you find networking tacky and transactional then you should check your mindset around it. It could be getting in the way of building valuable relationships.

By changing how you view networking, it can instantly feel more comfortable. Instead of asking 'What’s in it for me?' or 'I suppose I’ll have to go to another boring event' try thinking 'How can I help? What can I learn?'.

Some believe networking is manipulative, and all about ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. Others will actively avoid it because they can’t stomach the thought of an evening standing around talking to dull folk with a warm glass of bad wine, exchanging cards and stifling yawns wondering if they can get home in time to put the kids to bed so they can get on with their real work.
While others think networking is just about career advancement, when it is more nuanced than that, and anyone who approaches it with that sole objective isn’t likely to be successful.

It is true - there are probably dozens of ‘bad’ networking events happening in any given city in any given week, but this isn’t really what good networking is. Networking is simply building a group of people who are invested in your success. And doing this intentionally, as well as generously.

Herminia Ibarra, Organisational Behaviour Professor at the London Business School and author of ‘Act Like a Leader Think Like a leader’ helpfully talks about three kinds of network:
It can be useful to consider how you might categorise your network - it can make the leveraging of relationships more comfortable; for example, if you’re calling on a member of your operational network, it’s because you want something to happen and being focused on that puts your request into perspective.

This also means you will help them out when they need it. So, it is important to get really clear about the value you bring to your organisation and your network and how you can help others. The more confident you are about what you offer the more natural networking becomes.

And on the theme of it not being all about you, remember we are all drawn to people like us, we are comfortable with people of the same generation, in the same sector, working in the same function etc. but this doesn’t mean they are necessarily the people we will learn the most from.

Building a network that thinks and behaves exactly like you is easier but if you want it to stretch and challenge you, and to facilitate advantageous relationships, embrace difference in terms of what people are good at, how they approach things, their views and beliefs and their own networks.

So what if you do all this, and you manage to build an impressive network. What next?

Women’s leadership author, Sally Helgesen, says women often think about leveraging relationships as ‘not nice’. She says, “Women may view asking for something as transactional, so they miss out on the value of the relationship”.

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