Women’s networking for beginners – what you need to know

Pink women's shoes of different styles

Women’s networking – what type are you?

Networking is to small business owners what adultery is to French presidents – without it they would be totally forgettable – it saves them from obscurity.

As the owner of your own business, you better be prepared to polish your elevator pitch, work the room and shuffle your business cards like a pro gambler or you might as well close up shop and return to the coffee morning circuit. No-one will notice your business and your client list will shrink faster than you can say: referrals.

Putting your best foot forward

As a journalist I’ve interviewed presidents (and their lovers for that matter), reported on groundbreaking conferences and interrogated people about everything from gardening to terrorism, but the thought of standing up in front of a group of power dressed women to talk about my business for one minute, makes me shake in my sensible shoes. I also don’t like to gush or smile too much and can be rather direct and honest, bordering on blunt, none of which really qualifies me as a great networker.

Women’s networking types and tips for dealing with them For any networking virgins out there – I thought I’ d identify some of the typical personalities you’re likely to encounter at a women’s networking meeting – and share tips for dealing with them.

The spiritualist – she appears to be on a different planet from the rest of the group. Dressed in flowing clothes with a spaced out look on her face, she’ll be flogging mind mappings, hypnosis or some Eastern-inspired therapy.
Favourite terms: Holistically and healing. 
Top Tip: Don’t ask open-ended questions unless you have lots of time and patience and whatever you do don’t tell her anything personal about yourself.

The image consultant – she will be the boldest, brightest and loudest person in the room, often sporting clashing neon colours that will be repeated from her eyelids down to her toenails – to strengthen the look. She will be positively bubbling over with confidence, tinkling with laughter while all the time glancing you up and down with a pitiful expression. Expect some ‘helpful’ suggestions for ‘image improvements’.
Favourite terms: First impressions count and capsule wardrobe.
Top Tip: Compliment her on her great taste and she’ll be your best friend forever.

The financial or legal expert – she is my ideal potential customer. Conservatively dressed with a no-nonsense hairstyle, she has more to say than the whole room put together, but she’s either too reserved, modest or boring to make anyone listen to her. And even when she thinks she’s doing brilliantly and everyone is enthralled, more than 70% of the room usually don’t have a clue what she’s on about. As a writer, I know how to turn what she says into the kind of stuff that people like you and me can understand. 
Favourite term: Cost analysis and economy of scale.
Top Tip: If you find one of these stumbling around helplessly on the networking circuit- give them my card.

The neurotic bully:  At first glance she’ll appear to be the kindest person in the room, caring and interested. But beware – those beady eyes are watching your every step to suss out if by any stretch of the imagination you could be competition and every ‘innocent’ question is carefully calculated to extract intelligence – to be used against you. She would pretend to be looking out for you, offer to work with you, buy you drinks and keep you a seat during meetings, just so you don’t speak to anyone else.
Favourite questions: So, how’s business?
Top tip: Don’t make eye contact. If she’s taking networking that seriously, imagine what doing business with her will be like.

The know-it-all: this one is equally hard to stomach and is usually a marketer or coach of some kind. She loves the sound of her own voice, never shuts up and knows more about every subject and industry than anyone else, including yours.
Favourite terms: “Personally” and “in my opinion”.
Top tip:  Don’t be afraid to interrupt and disagree. Most people in the group will secretly thank you for it.

The wild card: Apart from the typical profiles, every group usually has one wild card – someone who offers something completely off the wall – such as a pole dancing instructor, a foot clinician or a tarrot reader.
Favourite term: Special offer or voucher 
Top tip: Keep a straight face. Just because you can’t see why anyone in their right mind would need this type of service, doesn’t mean she can’t offer it.

Do you network for business? which type are you? Can you add some other types?   Any tips on how to get ahead in networking are most welcome…

Is having fun on your to-do list?

Image of magnetic letters spelling having fun on a fridge

Has having fun disappeared off your to-do list?

My friend recently quit her stressful full-time job to stay at home. She’d been fantasising about this every day for the last 10 years.

Finally allowing herself the time to piece together the missing chunks of her children’s lives, at last having the freedom to arrange every minute of the day to fit her own agenda. She couldn’t wait to indulge her passion for cooking exotic recipes, join a running group and catch up with friends who’d been lurking at the bottom of her to-do list for years

Two weeks later and she’s as miserable and stressed as when she was working.”I can’t seem to enjoy it,” she says. “I think I need to go back to work.”

Every minute must count 

Another friend, about to take some well-deserved time off after years of spreading herself thinly on all fronts for years, has drawn up a list of planned activities that will make any senior company executive break out in a cold sweat:

Refurbish the house, landscape the garden, do a painting course, volunteer for a charity, Pilates sessions every day. The list is endless and is rattled off to everyone she encounters – daring anyone to doubt that every minute of every day at home will be spent productively.

On trend 

As with every other negative parenting phenomenon, I am bang on trend. My decision to realign my life with the things I care about and enjoy – my family and my writing, is a secret rebellion against an army of inner voices telling me that without a regular pay cheque, my self-esteem will be punched full of holes by every working mum I meet.

Even if we can afford it financially, and I’m very conscious that not everyone can, mums of my generation seem to be terrified of losing their grip – even just for a moment – on the slippery corporate ladder for fear that one misstep will send them sliding down into the doldrums of depression where their minds will rot away never to spark again.

Empty diary panic

Why does an empty page in the diary fill us with panic? Why do we feel the need to justify – even to strangers – a perfectly reasonable decision to take time out from the relentless and often unsatisfactory grind of being a working mum?

We are almost ashamed of the desire to spend precious hours with our children or just have a bit of time to ourselves, doing things that might not earn money, but could pay off handsomely in brownie points with our children and in self-fulfilment.

So where is this going?

Take my writing for example – I finally got myself as far as signing up for the creative writing course I always wanted to do – (my inner voice is still not talking to me) and I love it! But the niggling voice is there every time I leave the class – So, are you actually going to publish a book? This is all good and well, but where are you going with this? Are you going to make money (highly unlikely) or get famous (even more unlikely)?

I’ve never been driven by money – a new handbag or pair of shoes turn me on as much as the next woman – however, can I live without them – absolutely.

The real problem, I suspect, is that my sense of self is so entangled with my to-do list, that the thought of having a day without a plan or an activity without a concrete outcome – is like stepping off a cliff.

On the rare occasion that I manage to shake off those fears and anxieties, take deep yoga breaths, eat lots of chocolate and focus on enjoying what I’m doing in that moment – sitting on the carpet playing with my son or getting lost in my writing in a coffee shop – I feel like I am the person and mother I was meant to be.

And if I can build more of those moments into my life – who knows where that will lead?(See there I go again – why does it have to lead somewhere? It’s fun, I enjoy it – it’s good for my children and me. Is that not good enough?)

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Am I having a midlife crisis? Am I on my own out here? Anyone?

The silent breast pump and other lies by power mums

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I’ve got two degrees and a few certificates to my name, most notably a South African law degree (useless anywhere else) and a journalism masters (useless everywhere).

The certificates enjoying pride of place among children’s artwork and the family weekly planner on my study wall, equip me with such sought after skills as reporting on AIDS and teaching English to foreigners.

These framed accolades are all that remain of the career aspirations I once had.

They also suggest that I once must have had a fully functioning brain with eager grey cells sparking excitedly like toddlers on a sugar rush every time they got to file away new information. Little did they know…

Those once animated cells have turned into bespectacled, slippered slouches, worn-out after 11 years of helping me function as a half-decent mum of three, while desperately clinging to the coat tails of my career.

In fact, my brain cells go on strike causing me to want a lie down every time I read an article about another superhero working mum telling women they can have it all.

The last such article was a review of Lean In, a new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which made me so fatigued I had to ask my husband to do his share of the domestic duties (one of Sandberg’s gems of advice). He got as far as picking up his underpants from the floor.

Mrs Sandberg, who at 43 is the same age as me but looks 10 years younger, wisely opted to study something slightly more useful than journalism – and was top of her class at Harvard Business School before filling high-powered jobs at the US Treasury, World Bank and Google.

The reason, she says, that my poor brain has all but seized up and my day is a survival struggle from when I stumble out of bed to make lunchboxes until I stumble towards my first glass of Chardonnay (in the evening I should point out), is because I didn’t LEAN into my career.

I’m really too exhausted after three bundles of washing, the weekly shop and homework duties to read her book but one of the ‘inspiring’ examples she apparently quotes, includes a super-efficient friend who puts her children to bed in school clothes to save time in the morning.

She probably also substitutes bedtime stories with a power point presentation for the next day and flosses her teeth while having sex, to squeeze in a few extra minutes.

Mrs Sandberg proudly reveals how she secretly pumped breast milk while on a teleconference, pretending the beeping of the breast milk machine was a fire engine.

I found swapping from one monstrous mastitis ridden boob to the other, attaching and reattaching the breast pump to extract a few more drops, painful, uncomfortable and stressful.

Doing this while discussing million dollar deals with Mark Zuckerberg-types on the other end of the line, inventing lies to cover unpleasant background noises sounds like a recipe for a stroke. This is progress for women?

It reminds me of a rather nasty incident when I was interviewing a male neuroscientist over the phone from home.  I was potty training my toddler at the time and he ran into the room announcing that he needed a poo and threatening to do it on the kitchen floor.

I failed womankind by ending up frazzled, with poo on the floor and a disgusted neuroscientist on the other end of the line

Sandberg’s book doesn’t inspire me to Lean In – it makes me want to Lean Away from the madness of telling women they can have it all.

It also makes me want to Lean ON something. This is not helping women – it’s making them feel even worse about not being perfect at everything.

More helpful titles from the likes of Sandberg, would be:

Trust me, you don’t want my life – it sucks

The silent breast pump and other lies by power mums

Do you think women can have it all? 

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The podgy hand on my thigh

The allegations against former Lib Dem chief exec Lord Rennard have brought back some unpleasant, unwanted memories of a time when I was a vulnerable young woman hovering excitedly, uncertainly on the first rung of the career ladder.

He was an ugly old man (they usually are, aren’t they?), in his late 50s, with a huge pot belly, red, flaky skin and tiny snake-like eyes. He had an even uglier wife, (they usually do, don’t they?) enormous with a moon face and rotten smoker’s teeth.

I respected him a lot for his knowledge and was eternally grateful to him for giving me my first break in journalism. I wanted so much to please him.

It was after an office party one night.  He insisted on driving me to a pub where we would all meet up for a nightcap.

My subconscious flashed red alert signals, but I ignored them. He was my boss and my ticket to the only career that ever interested me.

Five minutes into the ride, a fat little hand with podgy sausage fingers and nearly transparent skin landed on my thigh. I froze.

He just kept talking as if nothing had happened. I moved away, his hand moved higher.

I did nothing…

By the time we got the pub, he was all over me – in front of all the staff members and his wife. Nobody said anything. He was literally pawing me like a big bear, laughing merrily all the time, while I sat motionless, tears stinging behind my eyes and bile rising in my throat.

The next day I went into the office, shaking uncontrollably. He pretended nothing had happened. I sat staring at my blank computer screen, unable to type a single word.  Every time I looked at him, I flushed, remembering his sickening sweet smell and sweaty hands on my legs. I knew I would never respect him again and I was devastated.

After a few days, I told my dad, an accomplished businessman, who instructed me to confront him.  It was the scariest thing I ever did.

I told him that if he’d ever touch me again, I would go straight to the police.

He exploded with rage, his face turning blood red and he shouted at the top of his voice so that everyone in the office could hear: “You think you’re God’s gift to men. I’ve never touched you and I would never want to touch you.”

It was terrifying, but even as he said it, I could feel the emotional distress of the days since the incident dissolving, the shift of power. I was in control. This would never happen again.

From that day on his behaviour towards me changed, as did his wife’s. They became businesslike, hostile, but very careful around me. He never touched me again.

Of course, I knew this would be the end of our working relationship, but there was no way I could have stayed there any way.

Eventually, after a few weeks, I found another job and left with a glowing reference. I bumped into him a few times after that – and every time he treated me professionally, with respect.

As pointed out by many women in the past few days, these type of incidents, which are sadly very common and typical of a certain generation of older men, are not about sex but about power.

The only way to deal with them is confrontation.