A few years ago when founder of 30SecondMobile Elisa All went to a meeting of the Chicago Founders Circle (an invitation-only, peer-to-peer networking group for CEOs of emerging growth companies in the Chicago area), she was disappointed to see that there were only two other women in the room. Unfortunately, this is still a common experience: women who attend industry functions or local Chamber meetings often find themselves in the minority. And in fields such as technology, venture capital, and high-level funding—my areas of expertise—women business owners are even fewer.
As someone who has studied strategic business relationship creation for three decades, I believe that women need to develop greater expertise in creating what my friend, Kay Koplovitz (founder of USA Network), calls “human capital networks”—people with whom we can be very open and who will give us the best advice while we do the same for them. We must become power connectors: individuals who add value by putting the best people in touch with the best resources, with the goal of creating greater success for all concerned.
During my thirty-plus years in business, I have noticed that male and female power connectors go about building their networks in different ways. Here are four suggestions to help women develop the strong, connected relationships that will accelerate our businesses.
#1. We must be strategic in developing our networks.
Women tend to reach out to broad coalitions and develop extensive connections with a lot of people. “We’re wired to form alliances, to cooperate and collaborate, and to support each other,” says CEO of the All Access Group Kelli Richards. Unfortunately, we also can find ourselves (1) swamped by the number of relationships we are trying to maintain, or (2) failing to develop new relationships because we know how much effort it takes to stay connected.
To be as strategic in developing business relationships as we are in utilizing any other asset, we must target the relationships that will provide maximum benefit to our businesses, and then follow a system to keep those relationships strong and vital. I utilize a 5+50+100 model that identifies my 5 closest relationships, the 50 people key to my one-year goals, and the 100 people with whom I need to stay in touch based on my long-term goals. With this system, I can keep current relationships strong while I find and build new relationships as needed.
#2: We must actively reach into different ecosystems at different levels.
I define an ecosystem as a web of professional and personal connections, linked by common interests, and sharing knowledge and access unavailable to outsiders. In addition to our personal networks, we must seek out members from the key ecosystems of government/politics, finance, media, industry, and community. Tapping into these ecosystems will help us gain access to the funding, relationships, and opportunities we need to grow our businesses.
We also must gain access to different levels of these ecosystems. While most women are good at developing “horizontal” (peer-to-peer) networks, we are less effective in reaching out to potential mentors and sponsors, or choosing others to mentor and sponsor ourselves. We need to actively network “up,” seeking out women (and men) to be our mentors and sponsors in the executive committees, boardrooms, and wider business communities. We also must reach “down,” to help and guide up-and-coming women in our fields.
#3: We must give freely—but also ask for what we need.
I have found that many men tend to see helping others as quid pro quo: “I help you so that you will help me when the time comes.” On the other hand, many women provide help in order to develop and maintain relationships, rather than as a means of “banking” favors for future gain. The problem arises when the time comes to call upon these relationships to advance our own aims. “I think women find it easier to develop strategic relationships but harder to use them,” comments film producer Elizabeth Dell. “We do less well in making ‘the ask’ in a relationship.”
One technique I have found helpful in asking for help is the “two to three first” approach: I make sure that I have added value to someone consistently (at least two to three times) before I ever make a request. Power connecting is based upon adding sufficient value, of the kind that the other person wants, with the goal of deepening the relationship first. The stronger the relationship, the easier it will be for you to ask for help—and the easier for the other person to say yes.
#4: We must help each other.
As Gloria Vanderbilt once said, “I’ve always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.”I believe that the best power connecting strategy any woman can develop is to actively support the efforts of other women. There are two sets of words we need to use constantly: “How can I help?” and “Use my name.” With those two phrases, women can build the kind of strategic relationships that will make us—and our businesses—stronger.