Much has been written about networks, most of it offering advice on how to-gracefully, of course-get as many business cards as possible in the shortest period of time. You're told to follow up quickly to create a connection and stay in touch by dropping brief, personally handwritten notes at quarterly intervals. The game is to amass as many 'friendly contacts' as possible, all in service of the ultimate goal-increasing your business.
It's not a bad idea. But we feel that to make the most of these connections, the networking puzzle doesn't stop there. Here's the thinking: As women entrepreneurs, we want to build our business as much as the next person. In childhood, though, we learned about another valuable function of a network-as a crucial support system that helped us navigate the minefields of growing up. Think about it-in grade school, who told us that that hot new toy, the Etch-A-Sketch, was the most fun thing ever invented? Our network. In high school, who saved us from terminal geekiness by letting us know that we absolutely must not wear that flowered belt with our Calvin Klein jeans? Our network. In college, who saved our sanity by taking us out for an afternoon of 'retail therapy' when our hometown honey called to say that they'd found a new love? Our network.
As young girls, we learned that our network could help us avoid pitfalls by saving us time, money, heartache. It introduced us to new products, new services and new ideas. It helped us stay on the cutting edge without doing all the work of staying in the know. Our network gave us intellectual and emotional support that was priceless.
Now that we're all grown up and running our own companies, we think it's even more crucial to tap into the power of that type of support system. We recently heard about a group called TAB that seems to get the model of our girlhood network just right. Short for "The Alternative Board," it brings together small groups of owners, CEOs, and presidents of privately-owned companies for informal monthly meetings. Highly confidential and limited to non-competing businesses, these groups ('boards', in TAB parlance) are a forum for its members to gain practical, real-world business advice from their peers.
We talked to a couple of female business owners that are members of TAB to find out what made it different from the usual 'shake-and-bake' style networking group (business card swap meet). Susan Garot, owner of Garot Hospitality, Inc., (a hotel and hospitality management firm that has developed, built, and managed four hotels throughout the state of Wisconsin) told us that TAB is "like having a board of directors you can bring your problems to and get objective, sound advice." Nora Holzwart, president of NEP (a document management solutions company with approximately $8 million in sales), told us that TAB saved her $25,000 in her very first meeting, by warning her-privately, and off-the-record-that a service she was about to purchase, widely touted as a great solution, didn't live up to its advertising. (Pamela: Nora was lucky. I had to learn the hard, expensive way that a graphic designer I once hired didn't live up to her fabulous PR!).
Each TAB board has up to twelve members that meet under the guidance of a TAB-certified facilitator/coach. The groups-like the most effective networks of our childhood-include both men and women. We think that's a plus, since in our opinion having male feedback proves to be invaluable in business (as it does in life, especially when we were dating and needed to know "how men thought" so we could decode the actions of our latest boyfriend!). Both Nora and Susan mentioned that having men on their TAB board helps them to develop other perspectives for their business, which makes the group more useful for them. (Plus, Nora says, it's more fun!).
After hearing about TAB, we realized that as women entrepreneurs it's critical to go beyond the Rolodex-building style of networking and seek organizations that replicate the information-trading, emotionally and personally supportive groups we grew up with. Nora told us: "My mother always says you're never going to live long enough to make all the mistakes you need to know the results from." We knew just how to overcome that problem when we were kids-now it's time to use that same strategy in our business!
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