How to find your own network without 'networking'

Can golf get more women into the boardroom?
Can golf get more women into the boardroom?

When you're making big career decisions, you turn to your mentors and your trusted peers. What steps did they take? How have they done it?

But first: how do you find these mentors and trusted peers?

A study from Lean In and McKinsey & Co, showed women report having fewer professional interactions with senior leaders than their male peers do. For women and people from underrepresented groups, networking is different than it is for their white male peers.

Some women gravitate to formal networking structure to find these connections: places like in-organization clubs, alumni associations or professional groups. But according to research from Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, a professor at the London Business School, the informal networks might be the ones that benefit women the most.

"When trust develops, people feel like they're doing something valuable together as opposed to 'We're just networking,'" she says.

So how do go to build those relationships? Below, some suggestions on where to start.

Join a club or a team

Fernandez-Mateo suggests joining something that brings people together around a common interest, work-related or otherwise. Something like a sports team or a garden club can work -- anything that rallies women around a common cause or activity.

And a special bonus to doing something so chill: you won't have to worry about the schmoozing that accompanies so many networking events. For some women, that's just the vibe they're looking for.

"When they force themselves to go to these networking things that are just for networking, they might even feel more like this is an instrumental, even unsavory thing to do," Fernandez-Mateo says. "But if they do something that is a shared activity and develop these informal relationships, that might actually benefit them."

Go to happy hour

When Catherine Asta Labbett launched Girl Tribe Gang, an informal women's networking happy hour series, she knew what she didn't want it to be: power point presentations, name tags and "corporate bull----."

"That whole formality sucked the life out of me -- the formality of meeting in a hotel, people in suits," she says. "And if you go into those kinds of environments not feeling like you're good enough in the first place, it can be quite damaging for your self-esteem and your confidence."

With her own networking get-togethers, Asta Labbett says she wanted to "reduce the isolation" some working women feel.

At Girl Tribe Gang get-togethers, Asta Labbet says she's seen women connect inside the group -- and then, critically, take that connection outside the group.

"If you create a natural, organic, healthy environment, you'll find that women are going to connect to each other and want to collaborate," she says. "They're going to feel relaxed and like they have a tribe of women who are supportive."

Look online

If you're new to a city, an industry or just the working world in general, going to an IRL networking group can feel super intimidating. A way to dip your toes in the water: virtual groups.

Women gather on Facebook, LinkedIn or Meetup groups to share links to their work, host online discussions or connect with like-minded women. Search online or ask other friends for recommendations on groups to join. Some involve in-person meet-ups and workshops.

Find a women's group at work

If you work at a larger company or organization, look to see if there are women's groups, new employee get-togethers or other affinity groups you could join to find your cohort. The good thing about these groups: you can practice those networking skills that feel so elusive at bigger events.

At General Electric Women's Network for example, women gather at GE hubs in cities across the country. Program manager Beth Castle says the events are a great opportunity for women to practice their "elevator speech," but also to get face time with senior officials within the company.

"Sometimes when we have a leader on a panel, I try to share some of the personal side in the bio, so they may have many more years experience than you do, but maybe you went to the same college or you also have a child," she says.

Stay connected

Don't forget the connections you already have: either from college, a previous job or even a hobby or interest. Did you graduate from art school but drift away from your peers? Search online to see if they have a group in your city, or join the email listserv to stay informed.

Explore these and see if there's a way for you to connect -- who knows, some might even be working in your company, moving to your city or tracking a career path similar to yours.

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