By Susan Roth/President/Trims Unlimited
There is so much advice in the press these days about the importance of networking for businesswomen, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. The mantra appears to be— join, attend and participate often. But when the advice jumps from page to practice, confusion often reigns. What groups are the right ones—institutional, segregated (sex, industry, position, revenue), professional, career building, small, large, charitable, civic, all of the above? One recent article in the Los Angeles Times quotes an expert who suggests that “leveraging” is the key to the universe and success is won by those who attend meetings regularly–sometimes as often as once a week.
I am all for networking, and I practice it on a regular basis; however, if I followed the advice given in the many articles I have read to date, I would not only be poorer for it (memberships and events are expensive) but would end up spending my days racing from one meeting to another without the time to concentrate on my core responsibility—my business.
So, after 30 years of running a successful small business and wandering down many paths—some dead ends and others, thankfully, not—I thought I would share 5 personal experiences that may help others “separate the wheat from the chaff.”
- Early on in my career, I joined several groups—including charitable organizations that supported or were supported by women in business. The end result, I became frantic trying to decide which meeting would be the most productive. I did way too much, and found the whole experience very unsatisfying: I never really got to know the group or anyone in it. I learned fairly quickly that you can’t leverage relationships with people you don’t know. You may see the same faces every few months, but without a modicum of quality time, networking, leveraging or whatever you want to call just doesn’t happen. If you are going to get involved, I suggest you pick one or two groups that are of interest—personally, philosophically, professionally—and participate as a full-fledged member. Do this and you have set the stage to develop real relationships that are both enriching and leverageable. And when the time comes for a referral or advice, it will be given because the request is based on genuine, personal connections.
- About 5 years ago I joined a national organization for women in business called WBENC (the Women’s Business Enterprise Council http://www.wbenc.org/about-wbenc ). This organization is a 3rd party certifier of businesses owned, controlled, and operated by women in the United States. They are the nation’s leading advocate of women-owned businesses as suppliers to America’s corporations. They hold a major summit each year which hosts an impressive “partner showcase” for many major US corporations that subscribe to their service. The same meeting hosts informative breakout sessions moderated by key business leaders and impressive guest speakers. Last but certainly not least, “matchmaker” opportunities are made available throughout the year with WBENC corporate partners. Though I have yet to receive any direct business as a result of my certification (and this may be due to my company’s particular field), I have found my relationship with WBENC informative, the members interesting (I joined a committee and made a few friends) and certification as a title marginally worthwhile. I am still a member and plan on remaining active.
- I eventually decided I wanted to branch out, and upon the recommendation of a colleague, I joined a women’s CEO group that promoted itself as an all female version of TEC (http://www.tec.com). Unfortunately, it was nothing like TEC. Instead, an unskilled moderator managed the meeting so poorly that the chapter eventually disbanded. However, almost in spite of itself, the organization fielded some incredible members from highly diverse professional and personal backgrounds. The most valuable part of my experience came from the fact that it gave its members an opportunity to discuss pressing business issues, share advice, and vet new ideas in a safe, non-competitive environment (each chapter was limited to about 15 members—a perfect size since only about 10 members make it to each meeting).
- About 2 ½ years ago, seven members from this last group went rogue and banded together to form its own, very informal meeting. We meet over a glass of wine or something softer each and every month. We act as armchair psychiatrists for one another. All successful business owners, we run companies with revenues ranging from 3 million to 15 million dollars. Members hail from different industries and backgrounds. The group is comprised of youngsters, oldsters, a CPA, MFA, a CFP and an Ivy League MBA. We are all at slightly different stages in our career but have one big thing in common: we all own our own businesses and struggle with many of the same challenges. We originally came together because we craved non-judgmental support in an intimate setting: we have no committees, minutes, homework assignments. Rather, ours is a freewheeling forum in which we discuss everything from exit strategies to managing a relationship with a business partner who just happens to be your husband. We are discrete, supportive and act as a safe harbor when needed. In my mind this is quintessential relationship building.
- So, what’s the ‘take away”? First and foremost, relationships make the world go ‘round and it takes time and effort to build them. Second, value your time and select your involvements carefully, disconnect from the obligations that aren’t working and remember not to over extend yourself. Then, get involved and the rest will follow.
Susan Roth took the helm of Trims Unlimited in 1985. Since then the company has regularly been recognized as one of the nation’s fastest growing and most successful Woman Owned Businesses.