Networking is not something that can be underestimated in today’s business world. The old adage rings true – it’s not what you know, but who you know that often helps you get to where you need to be business-wise.

I met recently with Ms Suzi Dafnis, the founder of Pow Wow Events and the national general manager of the Australian Business Women’s Network (ABN), to get a female perspective on what makes a good networker. 

Let’s get personal

Dafnis says the ABN is a networker’s paradise – it gives women a community of peers, access to role models, business training and mentoring, an invaluable resource for any businesswoman. They have introduced initiatives that promote their understanding of the pressures faced by women in SMEs, such as a pay-as-you-go membership and their new Advocacy program.

“We all know business is personal,” she says, “but with over one million SMEs in Australia today, business can sometimes feel very impersonal. Trends including lifestyle choices, outsourcing and technology that lets us work from anywhere, anytime have made it easier to start up your own business. But where do you turn for inspiration? Support? Encouragement? The chance to be a part of a community of women sharing the same journey?”

Practice makes perfect

Some people are natural-born networkers. For others, networking is a skill to be learned. For all, networking is an art form that must be mastered. For the naturally shy among you, this can often prove a daunting task. Be prepared to have to deal with business cards being shoved in your face and plenty of pushy people. The secret is learning to have confidence in your own judgement, and learning to trust your gut feeling about people.

Like any business skill, networking is something that you have to train yourself in. As they say, practice makes perfect!

It comes back to the Japanese concept of kaizen – that is, continuous improvement. And believe me, there is always room for improvement. If you feel you need to (or even if you don’t!), read books about networking, do workshops (this is the case of killing two birds with one stone), and just put yourself out there. As someone once said, the day you fail is the day you stop trying.

Quality, not quantity

Less can indeed be more when it comes to networking. A few quality contacts, contacts who you respect and admire and who will pull through for you with pearls of wisdom when they’re most needed are worth a lot more than a confetti of business cards to whose names you could not match faces if your life depended on it.

Dafnis firmly believes that a few good conversations and meaningful relationships that will last are more important than a lot of lightweight contacts.

“I learned to really take care of the relationships that are important to me,” she says. “I don’t usually network for the short term but look to build relationships with people I like, trust and want to do business with.”

Relationships here are key – when you need to call someone for advice then it’s too late to begin a relationship – you need to invest earlier.

Support network

It is no secret that if you surround yourself with good people, you are sure to be inspired by them, and even better, to pick up their good business habits.

“I am inspired by every entrepreneurial woman that I meet,” says Dafnis. “There is a spark and a spirit that I see when there is faith in creating something out of nothing. It’s that glimmer that I want to support and nurture and that’s why I do what I do.

My advice is to surround yourself with the people who will help you grow, both professionally and personally. Find out what you need to learn and who can help you learn it – identify your own weaknesses and inexperience, and then network with people who count these traits as their strengths.

Role models are key here – they give you something to reach for, to aspire to. Dafnis’ own role model is Madonna.

“Even though she’s not a traditional type of businesswoman, she’s certainly one of the most accomplished in her industry, and in the world,” she says. “She continues to reinvent herself, to expand herself and who she is in the world; she’s a great role model (for) speaking out, taking risks. Whether you agree with her or not, she’s certainly very visible in everything that she does. She’s is a great example of being bold and really going for getting what you want. I also feel she is using her wealth well, making a contribution back to people less fortunate.”

Meet the mentor

Mentors come in many shapes and sizes, along with many strategies and suppositions. Some mentor relationships are formal, with regular face-to-face meetings, strategic planning and accountability measures, others will be informal, a simple pep talk over a coffee, or someone you can use as a sounding board over dinner. Different relationships work for different people at different stages in both their lives and careers – what works for you now might not suit you in a year’s time. Keep your mind open, and be prepared to try different mentors and methods until you find the one that best suits you and your business needs.

Dafnis is a “big believer in mentoring”, which comes as little surprise considering that the ABS is a mentor-based concept.

“It’s a secret weapon that not enough business owners take advantage of and helps build a solid foundation for business to grow,” says Dafnis of mentoring. “My mentors generously guided me, trained me, and helped me focus. They also opened up their networks to me. Having someone with more experience show an interest in me and my business encouraged me and gave me confidence.”

Mentoring is networking, in the purest sense of the concept.

Dafnis points out that mentoring isn’t always accessible to women, especially if they are not in big cities. This is why she developed an online system.

“It’s not easy doing it alone,” she says. “The ABN’s mentoring program, MentorNet, helps women transform their business and sometimes, themselves.”