Deborah Gillis had just returned to work leading a business consulting practice, after being treated for breast cancer, when a former colleague invited her to lunch out of the blue.
"She asked me the big question: How has this experience impacted your life?" recalls Ms. Gillis. She replied that it had forced her to re-evaluate all aspects of her life, including her career. She explained that she wanted to find work that was more meaningful to her but hadn't thought it through yet.
Ms. Gillis's lunch date told her that she knew of a headhunter looking for someone to work for a not-for-profit organization in Toronto focusing on issues facing women in business. Because that's a mission Ms. Gillis strongly supports, she agreed to connect with the recruiter. In less than a week, she was asked to lead Catalyst's Canadian operation. Today, she is Catalyst's senior vice-president for membership and global operations.
"It really feels like one of those serendipitous, meant-to-be situations, because I've not seen that woman since that day, five and a half years ago," Ms. Gillis said of the luncheon encounter.
"You really don't know where and when someone that you have met, or worked with, or been introduced to, may present an opportunity that may not only be career-changing but can be life-changing," she added.
Most professionals know that networking is an important part of building your business and career but few place the appropriate emphasis on developing their contacts.
At the risk of generalizing, women seem to spend less time cultivating their networks than men do, for a couple of reasons. One is that networking is a time-consuming activity and for many women, time is a commodity in short supply. Also, some women find it insincere to meet people to explicitly to look for business, and believe that hard work and determination will be enough to get them ahead.
According to a Harvard Business Review research report published in early 2011, 77 per cent of women surveyed believed that hard work and long hours, not connections, would secure their advancement.
Men network differently than women, according to Hazel Walker. She is one of the authors of Business Networking and Sex (Not What You Think), and an executive director of the Central Indiana region of BNI, an international business networking association. Their different approaches may render the experience less beneficial to women at organized networking events, she added.
"Women network for relationships. They are not really good at asking for business," observed Ms. Walker, who noted that men ask for business very quickly and feel that a relationship forms while working together on that transaction. When men approach women using this tactic, she said women find it "too sales-y."
"Business is about business for men – it's about doing the deal, selling the product and getting the money," said Ms. Walker. And when women emphasize relationships over transactions, men interpret that to mean they don't take their business seriously, she said.
I worry that Ms. Walker's argument places a larger onus on women, instructing them on how to network like men. Hopefully, men will learn from the book that women do indeed take their businesses very seriously, even if they tread more cautiously before entering into a business relationship.
Ms. Walker said the inspiration for Business Networking and Sex came to her a few years ago after observing a networking event where people were being instructed on ways they could help others, and ways others could help them. The women in the group embraced the chance to help others but felt resistant to asking for assistance, Ms. Walker recalled.
She advises women not to be afraid to directly ask for what they want, especially when dealing with men.
The other piece of advice she gives female networkers is to talk up their accomplishments.
"Men speak to impress one another and women speak to relate to one another. But when a man speaks to a women, he's trying to impress, she's trying to relate – and they walk away frustrated," Ms. Walker said.
"Don't tell [him]you're the Mary Kay lady, because [he's]going to think you sell lipstick. Instead, say, 'I run a cosmetic organization. I have 250 people in my organization and I probably bring down $65,000 to $75,000 a year doing that.' That's what a man wants to hear," she said.
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org