If asked to envision a business networking group or club, who do you see? An enclave of white men in business suits? If so, it's time to update your perceptions.
While networking groups have evolved from their boys club status of decades ago, they've retained one of their best attributes—the ability for members to form lasting, career-building relationships. HR can encourage employees to participate in these groups and make the most of the opportunities they offer.
Evolution of Networking Groups
Susan Markham is an executive who has been involved in networking groups throughout her 35-year career. A typical networking group is composed of people interested in cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship through the exchange of information and ideas, development of professional relationships and sharing of best-practice knowledge and industry developments. Markham has been a member of Business Networking International, Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA), several chambers of commerce, and several national and local networking and industry groups. They ranged from very rigid, formal groups that monitored attendance, tracked referrals and expected recruiting of potential new members to groups that were more casual and social. Yet Markham said all of them had something in common: the opportunity for employees, owners and executives to come together regularly to educate and inform one another, as well as share contacts, referrals and leads.
Markham noted a major difference in today's networking groups versus those of 20 years ago. "Networking groups were old boys clubs and good old boys networks. Women and people of color were out of place and uncommon. Groups today are more diversified. While the boys club model still exists, the trend is definitely pulling in the other direction, with many women-only groups forming and thriving," she said. Markham recently joined several groups geared toward female business owners, executives, entrepreneurs and solopreneurs. She observed that women are generally supportive of each other and actively pass referrals on to each other.
Jackie Orth is vice president of operations for Sandler Training. Prior to this role, she was senior manager of trade promotion accounting for a major food manufacturer and co-leader of a women's resource group. Orth is also a managing director for Polka Dot Powerhouse, a worldwide network of closely connected professional women from all walks of life, ages, races, industries and backgrounds. The members support and learn from each other and collaborate in business through referrals. Orth refers to Polka Dot Powerhouse as a connection company rather than a network.
"In my early male-dominated finance career days, I thought handing out my business card and talking about business was how to get ahead. I didn't know or understand the importance of relationships and connections until much later in my career. And even if someone had told me back then, I would not have understood. Polka Dot opened my eyes to what it could be," Orth said.
Polka Dot Powerhouse, a network of 3,000 women organized into 50 chapters across the world, focuses on making connections and building relationships from which business flows through collaboration, support and encouragement. "First and foremost is getting to know someone to build the relationship," Orth said." Women can and should come together to support each other. I constantly say 'know, trust and believe.' From there, women gain business allies, explore career opportunities and collaborate on things once believed not possible."
Value of Networking
Markham found that the value of belonging to a large industry group like HBA was in the contacts. "In health care, people typically stay 10 to 20 years in a position, but at some point, they put their sights on more senior roles. If no opportunity is available at their current place of employment, they search outside. That's when groups like HBA become invaluable," she said.
Now as founder and owner of Awakening, a firm offering coaching, consulting, leadership development, life/crisis coaching and dream building, Markham is involved with a group of local small business owners. She said the group, which includes trades professionals like plumbers and electricians, realtors and home inspectors, forms a natural alliance and often brings each other into jobs and makes referrals.
Adrienne Beck Ondek, SHRM-CP, is a recent college graduate and HR department of one for a family-owned, service-related business. Ondek found that networking and industry groups have a positive impact on employees who are new to their field. In her food-related industry, education about food safety often comes from industry group participation. "Membership helped assess our company's position within the industry and pointed out what we could do better," she said.
Karen E. Snyder, SHRM-SCP, is owner and senior HR consultant at Bloom Consultants LLC providing leadership development, organizational design and strategic HR solutions. She encourages company leaders to take active roles in how networking groups are developing employees. She added, "Good HR not only supports networking and industry group participation, but encourages it.
For her own career development, Ondek turns to SHRM. "I am well-versed in the more technical aspects of the job. However, I needed knowledge to handle situations that were not textbook," she said. Ondek uses SHRM discussion boards, printed resources and the member network. "The biggest hurdle for me as a new HR leader was having the confidence in my decisions. Networking helped me jump over that hurdle. Whether it was reaffirming the decisions I already made or hearing a different perspective, I learned what to do in difficult situations."
Leslie Wireback is founder of Wireback Works with 20 years of progressive HR experience, from HR intern to CHRO."As an introvert, networking was always a dreaded word to me, but once I approached it as a connection and learning opportunity, I was able to see the value," she said. "I've made so many connections locally, nationally and internationally that I really don't know where I would be without the SHRM network."
While not numerous, participation in networking groups has some potential obstacles.
Snyder noted that many HR leaders are struggling with multiple issues right now—mental health and wellness, recruiting and retention, change management and employee relations. "Networking almost becomes a nice-to-have," she said.
Ondek noted that the amount of time an employee spends attending meetings or conferences can be problematic. She helps employees weigh the costs and benefits, and choose appropriate times of the year for attendance to minimize impact on the seasonal business.
Wireback cautioned that networking participants run the risk of hearing poor advice. "But poor advice can come from family and friends as much as from an industry or networking group. It doesn't weigh high enough to dissuade participation," she said.
Wireback also cautioned that employees should be sure to protect trade secrets or other confidential information. "It needs to be clear to employees what can and cannot be shared," she said.
Markham added that while the cost of joining a group can be a downside, the benefit of "free advertising" and "creating your own sales force" are positive outcomes. And technology like Zoom has made connecting nationally and internationally easier and less costly.
Markham believes the real key to successful networking is in the one-on-one meetings that take place in between group meetings. "The gold is all in the follow-up, not how many conversations I've had or number of business cards I've collected, but rather the relationships I create and nurture," Markham said. "It's the depth of the relationship and amount of trust that builds my business."
Snyder advised, "Get out of your comfort zone and network with industry groups outside your immediate industry. Go to local chamber events, learn about business as a whole, meet people who have different challenges and learn how you in your role can support those industries in ways you never thought of."
Orth concluded, "It is possible to be successful together without drama, without competing and without poaching. There is help to solve a problem or become a business ally. International members empower a world of possibilities. You get out what you put in, and the connections are everything."
Beth A. Klahre is a freelance writer from coastal North Carolina with previous leadership experience in global HR operations.