by Denise Berger
Who watched the Desperate Housewives recent episode in which Tom Scavo returns from a marketing job interview... dejected? When asked the reason, he explains that he was competing against one-hundred 30-year olds who "Twitter," and that he's over the hill… because he doesn't even know what "Twitter" is! Everywhere you look these days, networking - and having a network - is the flavor du jour, especially in any kind of online form. Twitter me, post it on Facebook, get LinkedIn, see it on My Space, join an online community, be a virtual member of an organization, follow this, subscribe to that, and, above all else, connect me! Creating the perfect social spider web is simply enough to cause retreat and turn someone into a hermit! Why? Because it is a little complicated to figure out what's important and because putting yourself out there on the vast, wide-open internet - the new wild west - is risky. Why is it necessary to get out there and ride through it, explore it and reap its benefits?
Social networks and blogs are more popular than emails now. And, according to Mark Zuckerberg, if Facebook were a country, it would be the 8th most populated in the world, placing it ahead of Japan. Like it or not, online networking is part of the fabric of our culture and global interactions. Recently, in a "Making Your Connections Count" presentation, I realized that the act of networking has existed since the beginning of humantime. We are, after all, social creatures by nature and certainly our species has nurtured this competency to the next level. Online networking is just the latest development, the next stage in our evolution. So, the question is: what drives our need to "socialize"?
Ironically, although women have the higher propensity for socializing than men (think of the role of women as gatherers in early civilization), we do not do as well fostering goal-oriented or brain-working (strategic networking). We excel at unconscious networking, the most basic style. We enjoy referring people to each other and prefer to give, not take – and not ask. According to a recent survey conducted by the European Professional Women's Network, women socialize primarily for personal reasons, making professional development, career pathing, and business secondary. A typical woman has 95 contacts on paper, 398 electronically and 170 online. The most startling fact comes from Wired magazine: women over 55 years old are the fastest growing social online networking group making women between the ages of 45-65 the largest demographic. Despite all of this, we tend to be reactive rather than proactive.
We create our networks of people for three purposes: our organization, our professional aspirations, and our personal growth. With such vastness, it quickly becomes important to understand what is in your network. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, points out that networking can be a valuable source of innovation, promotion, lobbying and information sharing and in order for it to be maximized you need to understand your personal motivations, have a good appreciation for your knowledge, skills and experience and know the talents of those in your network. It is important to know what those skills represent to you, what you represent to these people and - equally significant - what they can represent to each other. Creating intra-network bonding, interest, potential and value can be a powerful influence on business continuity, growth, profitability and career progression.
How do you foster a good network? The Center for Work-Life Policy gives these seven steps: be genuine; get involved; join a board of directors; go beyond Facebook; find mentors; be a good mentor; put in the time. Several organizations, like 85 Broads and European Professional Women's Network, afford professional networking to keep you current if you have exited the workforce, or to connect you when looking for employment, or simply to keep you in touch with "career peers" (people you have not met but who are in the same stages of their lives). With all these opportunities for global connectivity, I suggest that you have a goal for each network you join and take a few minutes at registration to customize the subscription to suit your objective; otherwise you stand the risk of overload. Twitter, for example, can be a great tool for marketing professionals to get sound-bites out frequently or to follow someone with impact but it can also be your demise if you sign up to follow Twitterers that twitter all day long, about nothing meaningful. Of course, you might like this insight into reality of, say, a celebrity but ask yourself if this is a productive use of time when you receive 50 twitter messages a day from just one! Granted, they are short, but they add up.
With networking, TIME is the critical factor in the equation; strike a balance between social on-line networks, professional on-line networks and your own face-to-face old-fashioned networking, depending on your needs. If you are in search of a job, you'll want to be engaged in more connections rather than less. Having said that, the golden rule of networking seems to be: proactivity… start networking when times are good and you do not have a particular need of your own. Paying it forward counts. Networking is here to stay and it behooves us to incorporate it into our daily lives. Make a point to meet up once a week with someone in your network. Make the time to develop your network, and it will beget fulfillment of your ultimate goals. That is brain-working!