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Ken Attale, advertising guru enters the ballroom of the Cascadia Hotel in Trinidad and is obviously surprised.
His brief has been to talk to a group of women about the art and practice of that great business skill, networking. But as the Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi Chief Executive Officer enters the ballroom the buzz is palpable. Close to sixty of the Caribbean’s leading female business executives and entrepreneurs are exchanging business cards, making contacts, entering information on their Palm Pilots, setting up appointments, listening and giving.
This is clearly not a coffee and cake women’s group. They are members of the Association for Female Executives.
And they’ve got game. Many of them could probably give a few master classes in networking for business success. But at this particular session they have come to refine their art, to listen to the advertising guru talk about his own experience in building a professional network. More importantly they are attempting to unravel a code: do men have a different formula for setting up and keeping connections than their female counterparts?
It’s a question - given the audience - that the advertising executive must have expected. If he didn’t, he certainly did not let on, for it is with the confidence of a general going into battle that Attale leaves the podium, strides into the exclusively female crowd and leaves some key messages: that the old boys club can be penetrated, that there are certain networking skills that are not gender specific and that female business leaders are perhaps better at making contacts but sometimes fall short in knowing how to leverage those contacts into business opportunities. He could not have found a more fertile ground on which to deliver his message.
According to Attale, networking has many benefits, but among the most important is that it is an efficient way to accomplish business goals, with the best networkers often possessing contradictory skills. Networking is about results and relationships. Effectiveness and efficiency. Assertiveness and graciousness. Persistence and trusting. Promoting yourself and promoting others. Building your business and building your life. Receiving and giving. Accepting support and contributing. Requesting and offering.
The master networker told members of the Association of Female Executives that there was great value in joining professional and charitable associations because they emphasized one’s talent for project execution, the ability to work as part of a team and a disposition in some cases for philanthropy. Attale also mentioned that when it came to networking, it helped to have a distinctive identity, to be opinionated on a variety of subjects and to be known as a woman of substance.
But at the Cascadia Hotel there were sixty women with distinctive identities, sixty women of substance who for all of Atttale’s assurances found it consistently challenging to develop a networking approach with men. One group member, Judy Chow, a tourism professional, noted that the ability to network consistently still had a lot to do with gender roles. According to Chow, women in their traditional roles as wife/mother and business executive did not have the same amount of time to invest as their male counterparts to go to the watering holes, to attend functions and join the plethora of associations.
Not to mention that some of the ‘fields of networking’ were still predominantly male, and that men often felt threatened when their sense of belonging to a pack picked up the scent of a woman close by.
Chow’s comments engendered an ‘Aha’ moment.
Do men and women business executives network differently? We know they do. If only because we have different leadership styles. Women are consensus builders, communal, albeit decisive, and men are aggressive, power-wielding and authoritative. But common ground can be found.
Here’s what we can do. We can form our own associations, we can be forthright in our pursuits, almost unconsciously conspiratorial in our collective and mutual understanding that we can call upon each other for referrals and to explore beneficial business opportunities. Real networking - power networking - is a requisite part of the business game. It’s not inane.
For women who want to rise to the top of their game, it’s absolutely mandatory.
Lessons in passion and courage
It’s a cool, crisp afternoon in Port of Spain, the sun is setting and Linda Carey is leaping up Queens Park East. Leaping is what Linda does best, like some nuclear-powered ball, as if her insistent energy can’t be contained by her 5 foot 3 inches frame.
“Something major is going to happen,” she remarks as we begin our once-a-week afternoon jog, “I can’t give you the details but you could probably guess.” Probably, yes. For weeks, perhaps even months Linda had been convincing a medium-sized design firm to enter into a strategic alliance with her small business. She had drawn up the business plans, demonstrated how the relationship could be mutually beneficial, had attended lengthy meetings and made some very impressive presentations.
On that cool, crisp evening she had just got word that the design firm wanted to bite big and would sign a deal that would leave Linda as happy as a child with cotton candy.
Since 1997, Linda had been forging her small business from the ground up. When she first started she worked out of her garage which she had converted into an office space; the Chinese restaurant down the corner with a table tucked next to the kitchen was the official boardroom.
Her office had bean bags that were snatched from her children’s bedroom and recovered in blue linen for her client’s comfort. A grinding battle from the start, Linda’s faith had always been resolute and now it seemed as if her small business was about to spiral upwards to entrepreneurial nirvana.
But Linda’s firm was a small business seeking traction in a crowded and competitive market, where she might have been first to make the offer to the design firm but she certainly wasn’t the last.
Three weeks later on another afternoon run we discuss yet another opportunity. “Whatever happened to the last, the one that held such promise,” I inquire. “It didn’t work out,” my friend says, “but I can’t focus on that; just listen to this new prospect I’m pursuing.” Apparently someone with deeper pockets had come along, the design firm swayed in their direction and Linda’s romance with them fizzled.
But it is in her answer that I learn a thousand lessons: that in an era where mega-successful firms call themselves entrepreneurial (with this I have no dispute), in this technicolour era of unprecedented venture capital funding (notice how even traditional financial institutions are getting into this arena), it is easy to forget that there is no such thing as frictionless entrepreneurship. But today entrepreneurship is what it has always been, about passion. About malleability. About remaining cool under tremendous pressure. And finding solutions even when you are so blinded by fear that you believe that there are none.
Most of all, entrepreneurship is about the journey to discovering how big are your dreams, how deep your commitment, how much you are really prepared to fail and how hard you are willing to work. Finally it is about courage.
And so it was that Linda, exactly three weeks after her dream deal had dissolved, was leaping up Queen’s Park East towards me, her deep-set brown eye imploding it seemed in excitement as she offered me another optimistic interpretation of yet another would-be deal. I stretch and smile setting our running strides in sync. With the wind pushing us forward I know I could use a lesson or two, about passion and courage.