Dive into the different ways networks and mentors can help women achieve their professional development goals
We’re all familiar with the old saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. At its worst, it explains nepotism hires, while at its best it encapsulates the importance of connection – that building relationships with the right people truly can help you get ahead in your career.
But not all relationships are built the same. There are two key types of connections that can help women to achieve their professional goals: networks and mentors.
Sure, you can grow your career without these connections, but it’s a bit like navigating the oceans without a map. Why make it harder on yourself, when you can tap into the knowledge of those who’ve come before?
You might be feeling stuck, not sure where to turn, or what your next steps might be. These professional connections are your sounding board, reality check, and career guides – they can help you see what’s working and what’s not, and the next step you should take. On a more personal level, mentorship can help build your self-confidence, and enable you to assert yourself in challenging situations.
For this article, we spoke with Amanda Michel, OneUpOneDown’s Chief Marketing Officer, for her insights. Read on to discover how networking and mentorship can support your development, and how to intentionally create such connections.
Network vs Mentors – do you need both or only one?
At their most basic level, networks and mentors serve two different purposes:
Networking is for your casual contacts, with no formal arrangement or obligation. It’s a way for professionals to stay in touch with their industry and find ways to advance their career by sharing resources and information.
Mentorship is when someone in a position of more experience in a particular area (the mentor) provides guidance to someone else (the mentee) in a more structured fashion. At OneUpOneDown we think that mentoring is a two-way street where both mentor and mentee benefit from the relationship but compared to networking it’s more intimate and honest, and there’s an expectation that the information will be unique to your professional needs and challenges.
Because they serve two different purposes you don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, for women, it’s recommended to have both a network and mentors simultaneously.
Researchers have found that men’s and women’s needs are quite different when it comes to connections at work: while men find a large number of shallow contacts sufficient, women require both a large pool of networking contacts and a smaller inner circle of close working friends to support their professional development goals.
The study found that women benefited from having access to wide networking circles (although on a slightly smaller scale than men) to give them access to varied information from who’s hiring to what salaries are on offer, and how to optimize their CVs.
However, the successful women in the study also had a second arrangement – a tight inner circle of close contacts who could mentor them through challenges specific to being female in a male-dominated world. These more intimate arrangements covered information such as how an organization views female leaders, maternity and childcare support, and the challenges women may face with negotiation and climbing the ranks within the business.
Network your way to career advancement
Networking is all about give and take as you extend the borders of your known world to meet with new people that are relevant to your industry.
“The goal is to access different people with different information or contacts or knowledge that you don’t have, and vice versa.” Explains Amanda, “There are circles of people everywhere, and nodes that connect those circles. Networking is about being or finding the nodes – the connections – and gaining access to all of the information within that new circle.”
Networking can be helpful when you’re looking for a career change. You can connect with people from different companies or industries to ask about the ins and outs of that role and what you should know to help you step into it. “When I was looking for a job, I connected with people in the area to ask about my CV, my approach, and how my experience stacks up. It’s a way of getting insider information before you’ve even broken into the industry.”
Even if you’re staying in the same place, networking internally within your company can help you get your work done more efficiently: “It’s understanding how to influence people, who the key leaders are, or who you need to tap into to access a specific skill or knowledge.” Some large organizations have internal networking and mentorship opportunities, which can be a great place to get started.
Overcome challenges with a mentor’s support
While networking can be more generic and group-driven, mentorship is a smaller, more intimate relationship that will involve just yourself and one or two others.
“What’s important is that if someone is your mentor, there’s this common understanding from the start that you’re both in this, and you can be completely honest with each other. These connections will deepen over time as you feel more comfortable bringing your full self to each catchup.”
Mentors don’t have to even be from the same industry or role that you see yourself in – there are a lot of common experiences that women in the workplace share, that transcend the border of organization or niche. This means there’s more freedom to find a mentor that you personally connect with, and who understands you, rather than specifically looking for someone in your same area of expertise.
Like with networking, mentorship can provide clues on how to break into an industry, or how to improve your performance within an organization. At any stage of your career, there’ll be a certain set of challenges you need to face. A mentor can support you with tailored advice to overcome and grow toward your goals with each step.
Avoid burnout by setting realistic expectations
The researchers who compared male and female networking also made an interesting discovery: women tend to go deeper in their bonds and create stronger connections than men.
While this is great on the one hand – yay, authenticity – it can become a drain on your time.
With both networking and mentorship, you only get out of it what you put in, but you don’t need to go full throttle at both. Realistic expectations can help you manage your time and energy while still making and maintaining fulfilling connections.
Let networking be simply networking
While mentorship follows a structured program, networking tends to be more sporadic. You might check in with your network quarterly, or at irregular intervals as you have time.
“Networking can feel transactional and superficial because it is – the more people you have in your network, by default the shallower those connections will be. You simply don’t have time to have a hundred close friends and give them all your energy.”
It’s okay to allow these relationships to be transactional – the purpose of networking isn’t to become best friends, it’s to share information and open up doors. If you hit it off with someone and want to build a deeper friendship that’s great, but if not then that’s perfectly fine too.
“Don’t over-invest in too many relationships. Let some be transactional, or time-bound. Sometimes it’s okay to let connections fall away if they served their purpose and you’ve moved on to new work.”
What can often put women off networking is the feeling that they’re only there to ask or take.
“It used to feel like I only reached out when I wanted something from them, but the trick is to stay in touch before you want something, so you don’t feel as uncomfortable asking for help. Now I keep an excel spreadsheet of contacts, keeping note of the last time I spoke with them and what we spoke about, then I know when I should reach out next just to say hi or check in with their career.”
What Amanda’s describing is the two-way street of give and take that works best for women. Because we invest more in our relationships, we feel obligated to contribute our share. If you can bring a spirit of give-one-take-one to your networking, you’ll feel much more comfortable when it’s your turn for help.
Even just a comment on their LinkedIn post, a private message to celebrate an achievement, or a link to a blog you know they’ll enjoy is enough to keep a connection warm. It’s okay to not be as involved in your network and to save that energy for your mentorship.
Be strategic with your mentorship
It pays to be strategic with your mentors, looking for quality over quantity and people you can trust and open up to. You’ll only want a small circle of mentors, so there’s no need to stick with someone who isn’t right.
Mentorship is a more structured relationship with more frequent catchups and designated roles. With OneUpOneDown, you’ll be paired with a mentor for three months, during which you’ll meet four times. The minimum commitment is set from the start, but it’s open-ended to allow for the relationship to continue beyond the initial match.
“With mentorship, there’s also the expectation that you’ll have a deeper relationship, but that doesn’t mean you need to go all-in from the start. It takes time to get to know each other, to build that trust and understanding.”
As a mentee, you’ll be on the receiving end of advice and support, but that doesn’t mean you just sit back and do nothing. You should come prepared with what you want to cover, what your challenges are, or what you want to improve. To get the most out of a mentor connection, you need to ask the right kind of questions (don’t panic, we’ve got docs to help you here).
As a mentor, you’ll be practicing different skills – holding space and actively listening, asking the right kind of questions to help your mentee find their way, and learning how to use your own experiences to guide your mentee in their decisions.
How to build intentional connections
So you know what’s needed from your network and your mentor, and what you need to contribute to each, but how do you go about making these connections and accessing the insider knowledge of each?
1. Set goals
Decide what you need based on your current professional development goals, and what you have time to commit to. Do you really need that personalized support of a mentor, or is it industry-specific information you’re after?
When you set goals for networking or mentorship, make sure they’re things that you can control: how many events do you want to attend? How many new people will you talk to each?
Your networking goals can also include the actions you’ll take to keep in touch after a meeting: how often will you reach out to contacts? How many online groups will you contribute to?
2. Reach out
Networking can take place online (i.e. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook groups) or in person (i.e. industry events, MeetUps). Most networking groups are open to newcomers – remember they’re hoping to get something from you too – so don’t be shy about sending a request to join or tag along at their next event.
Some larger companies offer in-house networking and mentorship opportunities, which can be a good place to start if that’s available.
If you’ve found a wonderful person in your network who gets you and would make a great mentor, you can always ask them if they’d be comfortable stepping up into a more regular arrangement.
3. Sign up for OneUpOneDown
OneUpOneDown is the go-to for women’s mentorship and enabling women to achieve their professional goals. The initial commitment is small but effective – four sessions over three months to connect with a mentor who’s been chosen especially for you. Our algorithm matches you based on a set of criteria and supports both mentor and mentee with guides and instructions to help you both get the most out of the arrangement.
With a network of women around you and a close mentor by your side, you’ll have all the support you need to achieve your career goals with confidence.