Struggling with the idea of networking after a year WFH? Isabel Sachs, founder of I Like Networking, explains why it’s so important for women to create professional networks and how to go about it without feeling awkward.
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When lockdown hit and the world came to a halt, things for the creative industries looked grim. I was one of the many creatives who lost their job due to the pandemic and became one of an estimated three million freelancers excluded from the government’s Covid-19 income support.
Feeling lost and with a sea of uncertainty ahead, I went into a phase of what I like to call, ‘Netflix and Crying’. But after many tears, I grew tired of feeling powerless. Was there something I could do?
I reached out to colleagues and friends who sent around my CV, supported me and shared their own struggles. I found I was not alone. A lot of our conversations focused on how fragile creative work is and how, for better or worse, it operates on a ‘who you know’ basis.
One day, a freelancer friend said to me: “I have no idea how I will find a job now. It’s all about networking and I hate it. I’d honestly pay to have someone network for me”. One month later, I started I Like Networking. It began as a volunteer programme melding networking and mentoring to support women and non-binary people in the creative industries. I asked friends and mentors if they were willing to open their black book of contacts and experiences to those who needed it.
One year on, it has upskilled over 2,500 people, won the D&AD side hustle award and led to invitations to deliver talks for organisations like The New York Times – all because I called on my network to support, not just me, but our whole sector.
When I moved to London from Brazil it was through networking that I got my first job opportunity, found out how the industry operated and who the key players were. But, while networking is key for our professional development it also has a huge gender gap that needs to be addressed.
Data gathered by LinkedIn in March 2020 shows women in the UK are 27% less likely than men to have a strong professional network. It’s something we need to address more than ever, considering the pandemic has created a recession that is disproportionately affecting women.
Through my journey with I Like Networking, I noticed women struggled with confidence around knowing how to ask for what they want. There’s a preconception that networking is about boldly selling yourself and how amazing you are. That might suit some people, but if it doesn’t, I’m here to prove that, as women, we can make our own version of networking.
By definition, networking is a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups with a common interest. If we think about it, we all have a network, from our friends and families to book clubs and running circles we’re part of.
A lot of women question networking because they think it makes them seem pushy, but we can develop beneficial professional relationships without that. The work stereotype of a boys’ club, where connections are made while talking about sports and smoking cigars, is not entirely a thing of the past. But it does not mean we should just replicate that model to be successful.
Networking isn’t about getting tons of business cards in an hour and making ten cold calls the next day. Consider your friendships, how did they develop? If your friend told you they were super insecure about networking and unsure about their value what would you say to them? Apply the same advice to yourself.
How to start networking
A good way to start is to think about who is already part of your network, including friends, family, and colleagues. Then define who you’d like to connect with and why. Are you looking to develop relationships with recruiters, potential clients or key leaders within your industry?
List 10 people you’d like to connect with and then ask yourself “why?” Having an intention when you network will bring a lot more value rather than connecting with lots of people you won’t be able to keep up with.
Once you’ve written your list, consider what value you can bring to each relationship. This will help you understand the best way to approach them.
How to make sure your messages get answered
No one has the time to read paragraph after paragraph about your life story and try to figure out why you’re getting in touch. If they know exactly what you need from them it’s easier to say yes or no. This is particularly useful when it comes to online networking where your first impressions usually come in written form.
This is where having clear intentions comes into play. Make sure your initial message reaching out to someone has these elements:
- A brief sentence describing who you are.
- Context for the interaction. Why are you reaching out to them right now?
- Make it personal. Why should they listen to you? Why do you want to get to know them specifically? People want to feel special.
- Ask your main question. What is the one thing you most want to know from them?
- Kill them with kindness. Always close a message with respect, just as you’d expect.
Tips for networking online
Email is still essential
One of the most underrated tools out there is our good old email. When I first moved to London, I emailed friends and family to ask if they would introduce me to anyone who had a connection in the creative sector. You’d be surprised how many people know someone who knows someone.
Remember, always be clear in what you’re asking someone. If people can just forward your email and say, “This friend is looking for x, could you help?” you’re on the right track.
Use social media to your advantage
Social media platforms are tools for socialising. Do you like someone’s work? Share it and let them know. Read an interesting article? Post it and let people know why. These online places exist so you can develop relationships, so make the most of it. Let your personality shine through.
If you attend an online event, share a link to your LinkedIn or Instagram. Get into the habit of connecting with at least one other attendee. If you loved a panellist at an event, let them know what you got out of it and that you’d like to stay in touch. It really doesn’t have to be any deeper than this and everyone appreciates it when their work resonates.
Tips for networking in real life
Think about what defines you outside of work
So, you’re back at an IRL event. Before you go in, ask yourself what three things define you outside of your work.
We connect with people, not job roles. Most connections we make, even professional connections, will develop through other elements of our personality.
Maybe you’re someone who knows everything about dinosaurs, loves gardening or is obsessed with rugby. A conversation about those things will go much further than just discussing your job and what you can do for one another.
Everyone else you meet will have things that make them who they are outside of their careers. Are you curious to find that out? That’s how you start. I’ve bonded with other professionals over things as random as trail running, TV shows and obscure bands. Everything else can be developed later.
Approach networking like making friends
Conversations are about listening to people. If you approach networking as you would approach making a new friend, the pressure will be off and you will have a much more enjoyable experience.
If you’re feeling like an outsider, chances are there is someone else in the room feeling the same. Go find them and be the one who saves them from staring at their phones.
Not all connections will develop
Not every connection you make will turn into professional gold. Sometimes it might turn into a lead in ten years’ time, other times you will just meet interesting people that add to your overall experience. Don’t feel pressure to create a bond with everyone.
How to make networking a force for good
Networking is a two-way street. If you want to start networking but you’re not sure what to ask people or can’t think of people you’d like to meet – flip it. Consider what you can bring to the table instead.
- Can you be a guest on someone’s podcast or radio show?
- Could you offer tips on how to do something you’re great at?
- Could you start a book club for everyone else who is also interested in Russian literature?
- Share five new job openings you’ve seen lately or an amazing article you’ve read.
- Review someone’s cover letter or portfolio.
These initiatives will put you in touch with interesting people in your sector. It’s also a way to start building your profile as an expert in your field and to start conversations. In the process, you’ll also be supporting others. It’s a win-win situation.
Images: Getty, Isabel Sachs
Isabel Sachs, I Like Networking founder
Isabel Sachs is the founder of I Like Networking. She is a creative producer, public speaker and podcast host with over 15 years of experience in arts, culture and entertainment. She is passionate about bringing diverse talent into the creative industry.