Big Yourself Up

3 women on how they learned to network without feeling awkward

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Moya Crockett
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Big Yourself Up is a regular column exploring how women can increase their visibility in the workplace. Here, successful women from three different industries explain how they developed the ability to network without cringing. 

Unless you’re blessed with the bulletproof confidence of Beyoncé at Coachella, chances are you feel slightly uncomfortable about networking. Circling a room with a glass of sauvignon in hand, trying to strike up conversations with people you don’t know, is not how most of us would choose to spend a Thursday night. At its worst, it can feel like the most unpleasant kind of socialising: artificial, cynical, and motivated purely by self-interest.

But while it’s sometimes tempting to turn down industry events in favour of an evening in front of Netflix, networking doesn’t have to be awful. In recent years, women’s networks and clubs like Women Who, Congress and AllBright have sprung up across the UK, joining the ranks of more established communities such as the Women in Business Network and the City Women Network. Forget stilted conversations over stale nibbles: these groups are all about enabling women to share their knowledge, successes, ambitions, contacts and frustrations, with others who just get it.

Crucially, meeting likeminded people outside of your immediate professional circle is guaranteed to make you more visible in your field – and that’s essential for career progression. Research suggests that many people find work through acquaintances, and successful networking has also been shown to be related to salary growth. In his New York Times bestseller Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi gets to the heart of the issue. “People do business with people they know and like,” he writes. “Careers – in every imaginable field – work the same way.”

Is it possible to teach yourself to be good at networking? We think so. Below, we’ve asked three expert minglers to share their advice for how to build connections professionally and productively – without feeling awkward. 

Claudine Adeyemi, associate at Mishcon de Reya law firm

Networking is essential for lawyers, because the business of law requires generation of work – and that’s partly achieved through connecting with people. That might mean meeting directly with potential new clients, or building good relationships with existing contacts or intermediaries who can refer work to you.

But I have (and sometimes still do!) find traditional networking difficult. It effectively requires you to start up a conversation with a complete stranger, and that is awkward. I used to look around events and think, gosh, so many people already know lots of other people here; I’m the only one with no friends. I didn’t realise that many of them were just networking themselves and had only met those people that evening.

A few things really helped me feel more comfortable about it. I realised that in classic networking situations, everyone else is also there to network – so it’s no surprise to anyone if a stranger walks up to them and starts chatting. Everyone’s in the same boat.

Another thing that really allowed me to feel more relaxed about it was forgetting the word ‘networking’. It has connotations of generating sales or business and meeting as many new people as you can, but for me, networking is more about building genuine relationships. If you do that well, it’s likely that opportunities will arise for both of you in the future.  

I also get a buzz out of connecting people with others in my network, so I often approach conversations asking myself: “What can I do for this person, or who can I connect them with that can help them?” Putting yourself in a position where you’re trying to help the person you’re speaking to removes the pressure that the word ‘networking’ places upon some people.

The greatest networkers are confident and good communicators. I run a non-profit organisation called The Student Development Co in my spare time, and we often organise workshops with young people to help them develop these attributes: confidence to approach people to start conversations (and to end them), and communication skills that allow you to build a rapport, listen effectively and partake in engaging conversations beyond mere small talk. It’s also important to develop the ‘follow up’ skill. What’s the point of meeting new people or discussing new ideas and opportunities if you don’t follow up to maintain that relationship?

If you’re at a networking event where you don’t know anyone, look to start a conversation with one person or a pair – it’s easier and less daunting than trying to join a larger group. Or make it a game: challenge yourself to speak to x number of people before you leave. In terms of practice, start small. Connect with interesting people on platforms like LinkedIn and meet them for coffee, or build relationships with colleagues you don’t know well. Internal relationships can be just as important for career development, within the legal industry and beyond. 

Follow Claudine on Twitter: @ClaudineAdeyemi

Molly Goddard, co-founder, Desmond & Dempsey

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There are so many parts of running a fashion label – from the supply chain to logistics, e-commerce, photography and digital – that you need to work with people who are the best in their individual fields. If you try to do it alone, it will either take you a million years to launch or the work will be incredibly flat.

But I’ve definitely felt uneasy while networking in the past. We’ve initiated a series of fundraising activities for Desmond & Dempsey and it’s a bit like a first date: it’s always going to be awkward. Joel [Jeffery, Molly’s business partner] and I are also married, so people always have some concerns and don’t know how to approach the subject.

I think changing my mindset about what it means to ‘network’ has helped. The word itself has unfavourable connotations, when really it should be seen as collaborating. Also, after you collaborate to make something really great with people you met ‘networking’, you’re inspired to do more of it!

My two main pieces of advice are: don’t focus on what you want from a network, focus on what you can give. You’ll not only experience more, but you’ll also have a chance to meet and work with people who are interested in your talent. Also, start where you feel most comfortable. I love meeting people in person, and I’m most at ease face-to-face.

Ultimately, being a good networker is about being curious. Everyone has a story, an idea, or a passion – by being inquisitive and interested you learn so much and in my experience find yourself really inspired and excited to work together. 

Follow Desmond & Dempsey on Instagram: @desmondanddempsey

Camilla Blackett, screenwriter 

The first lesson I learnt in the entertainment industry is that networking is the fulcrum on which everything balances. Now what is networking? Drinking champagne and eating canapés at Soho House? No. OK, sometimes it is – but really, networking is the art of cultivating relationships with likeminded individuals in your industry who can help you and you them.

The second lesson I learned was that Middle-Aged White Guys and their progeny had all the relationships in my industry, and if I wanted to get anything done I had to go through them. I discovered this slowly and painfully after being politely rejected by Middle-Aged White Guys. As my black, brown, Asian, northern and working-class friends surely know, this rejection is never overt. It is never shouted, but whispered. Doors are never slammed, rather gently closed in your face.

Dear Reader – I declared this to be some bullshit.

Because here’s the thing. I knew I was talented. I knew I was better at this than so many of my posh contemporaries whose dads were mates with the commissioner of the BBC, who managed to keep selling brain-sodomisingly dull rehashes of the same old dreck. I knew I worked harder and smarter -and bottom line, I was just f**king good.

Slowly, I asked myself why I was looking for the inclusion of a bunch of people who didn’t share my creative sensibilities, when I was already surrounded by talented, grinding, hustling, like-minded friends – from musicians to editors, directors of photography to location scouts, directors to other writers. 

These kids hadn’t quite made it yet: they were second- and third-generation immigrants whose parents didn’t understand that entertainment was actually a job, let alone have any connections or the ability to get them an internship. But they were working like mad, making dope s**t in-between temp jobs, on borrowed cameras, broadcasting on Youtube, Soundcloud and Vimeo. And it dawned on me that if the Middle-Aged White Guys didn’t want to let us into their club, we could make our own.

So that’s what we did. We worked with our friends. When one of us needed a score for our horror short, we called a mate who needed a credit for their music course. When one of us needed a make-up artist, someone had a cousin who worked at the Mac counter in House of Fraser who wanted to get into film. When a mate’s grime freestyle needed a video, we worked for free late into the night on chilly council estates. And most importantly, when one of us made some headway, we brought the others along with us.

And now, my networks have matured. We are grown. We are directors of theatres, we are producers, we are Oscar nominees. We are the Middle-Aged White Guys now.

So my networking advice is this: surround yourself with likeminded people. Help each other, note each other, bring each other up with you and don’t let anyone trick you into thinking that you need their permission to make cool s**t.

Follow Camilla on Twitter: @camillard

The Big Yourself Up column is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, a year-long initiative to celebrate women’s success and inspire others to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here.

Main image: Getty Images