Last week I was lucky enough to be one of the 11,000 women to attend the Massachusetts Conference for Women. Since it’s inception in 2005, the conference has provided access to connections, motivation, networking, inspiration, and skill-building for women of all backgrounds. I was presented with the opportunity to attend the conference on behalf of Shepley Bulfinch. As a member of the largest woman-owned architecture firm in New England, I am fortunate to work for a firm that recognizes and prioritizes providing employees with professional development skills that will help them advance in the workplace.
With a roster of accomplished speakers representing a variety of industries including finance, media, public policy, and academia, it was nearly impossible to decide which sessions to attend. Among a number of other incredible sessions, I chose to participate in “How to Drive Innovation through Diverse Collaboration and Teamwork” led by Caroline Webb, CEO of Sevenshift, and Jennifer Davis, founder of Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network. In this session, Jennifer Davis discussed tactics for aligning yourself to become an “agent of change in the workplace,” or to create networks within your company to enact change internally. One of the most interesting parts of this session was the exploration of the difference between “networking” and “building a network.”
In the connected age we live in, “networking events” are something everyone in the professional services industry is familiar with. We’ve all been there: you go to a cocktail reception, or a breakfast, you make awkward small-talk, you give someone your card, you send a follow-up email, maybe you connect on LinkedIn, and then you never hear from that person again. Small-talk. Card-exchange. Repeat.
Is this the most effective form way of connecting with others? I think we’d all say no, and Jennifer Davis agrees. One of the biggest mistakes of “networking” is that many events are geared toward people of similar backgrounds, professions, and career-levels. Instead, consider “building a network” comprised of individuals from various backgrounds and skillsets. The immediate result is that you will represent a unique niche or value to the group. When you identify the value that you bring to a group, you are exponentially more likely to build lasting relationships.
So where to start? I’d suggest seeking out professional and personal events or groups that represent causes that you feel passionately about. Remember, building a network is based on making real, deep connections with people over time, and often these begin with a shared interest. What do you feel strongly about? Perhaps, as in the case of Jennifer Davis, it is advancing women’s access to entrepreneurial training, or maybe it is developing a personal skillset such as public speaking, in which case a group like Toastmasters could be interesting. Regardless of what your cause is, commit to it, and commit to getting to know others in your group. Access to a strong network will serve you both personally and professionally in ways that you can’t yet anticipate.
Jacqueline Dias is a Business Development Manager for our education practice.