If you want a warm introduction, an enthusiastic referral, a listening ear, a glowing recommendation, I believe women make the best connections. The return on our investment of time spent networking with anyone: relationships. And you never know when those relationships will help land a job or a new client.
For me, this October has meant a renewed push to network with other small business owners, many of them women. It occurred to me only recently that my timing coincided with National Women’s Small Business Month, which was established following the 1988 passage of the Women Owned Business Act. This law provides policies and programs that support female-owned businesses.
Here are four lessons I’ve been reminded of during my month of networking and ones you can apply apply in all of your coffee meetings, networking gatherings, and introductory emails.
1. Find your group.
Networking and professional groups abound. I belong to four of them (a mix of coed and women-only), one of which is specific to my industry.
Check out local networking groups and chapters. There are the usual suspects like Rotary, Business Networking International (BNI) and National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). Also ask your friends and professional connections about groups they’ve joined and would recommend; perhaps you can be their guest at the next meeting or luncheon.
Know that not every group will be right for you. You might have to visit groups a few times to determine which ones suit you. You’ll know the right group if you feel both at ease sharing about yourself and energized by the people you meet. You also want to make sure you’re comfortable with the rules, including around attendance. A group that meets weekly might not be right (no matter how much you love it) if you travel for work a lot.
And membership might not be forever; sometimes you need to change it up. I recently joined a new all-women’s group and am loving the energy that comes from making new professional friends. I’m impressed by how welcoming this group of women has been to a newcomer. I next plan to check out my local NAWBO chapter.
2. Build relationships.
Whether or not you join a professional networking group, you should also build individual relationships. Do that by showing up at events, and I recommend one tactic of mine, which is to always sit in a different spot or chat with someone new. Remember, it’s about expanding your network. You have to put yourself out there.
Also important: 1-on-1 meetings. These meetings, typically over coffee, are a way to get to know the people in your groups. And as I have written before, I like to take meetings–in person or by phone–with people before connecting with them on LinkedIn or if they pop up in my LinkedIn feed, and I realize we haven’t caught up in a while. After all, people can’t help you and you can’t help them if you don’t connect now and then.
When you join a networking group, start setting up 1:1 meetings right away and expect others in the group to reach out to you too. These groups love new members. If you’re introverted, I get it. Networking is not my natural habitat, though I have come to enjoy it. The thing to realize is these 1:1 meetings are a way to make the larger group feel smaller and less intimidating.
3. Ask for what you want.
Many networking groups offer the chance for a 30- or 60-second commercial during the monthly or weekly meetings. You stand up, say something about your business or tell the group what type of business or client would be an ideal referral. In other words, this is permission to ask for what you want. People want to know how to help you.
For example, my intro would be something like, “I’m Amy George, owner of By George Communications–a public relations and communications business. I elevate professionals through PR. A good referral for me would be professionals in the financial and legal professions.”
In your individual meetings, you can also ask for something that might be helpful–an introduction to someone the other person knows, feedback on a new product or service, or a recommendation for a particular vendor. It’s OK to ask for what you need, so long as you make sure to…
4. Be a giver, not just a taker.
You might not be able to do business with every person you meet, and people in your network get that. But there are always way to help and reciprocate. You just have to be attuned to others’ needs. Enter every meeting–group or 1-on-1–with the intention to listen as much as talk and to ask how you can help as much as you ask for help. Ask questions like: Who is your ideal client? Who can I introduce you to? Can I write a review? How can I help?
Personal meetings and networking events always lift me up and assure me that I know or am getting to know the people who will inspire me, push me and cheer for me–all year long.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.