Many women dismiss networking as a luxury they just don’t have time for. However, if you want to advance within an organization or industry, then it is critical to spend ample time in informal interactions with peers and colleagues to build informal networks of relationships that give you access to information, support and opportunities, and ultimately success.

Moreover, even when professional women do network, they often focus on networking with other women. That may indeed offer some useful mentoring given their shared experience as a woman in leadership. However as your male peers and colleagues tend be the influential majority in most companies, strengthening your informal relationships with them would likely be more beneficial to your influence and reputation.

With this in mind, SharpAlice recently hosted a breakfast round table with political strategist and lobbyist Kelly Cohen about “The Power of Informal Networks” at the Citrus Club in Orlando. Kelly Cohen is the Managing Partner of Southern Strategy Group and one of Orlando’s Mayor Buddy Dyer’s top advisers. She is known as a true “Jedi of networking” and Orlando Magazine has named her one of the most influential women in Orlando

Below we have summarized the 6 key insights Kelly discussed with us on how to turn your networking into a true leadership competence and advantage.

I. Lead with warmth instead of your competence

We all know that first impressions matter, but in business a lot of us may be mistaken about what exactly makes a good impression. Most business people think it is key to lead with your competence – to show off your expertise. But guess what? By doing so you might actually be making a BAD impression. Why?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has been studying first impressions alongside fellow psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick and based on her findings she says that people unconsciously seek to answer two questions when they first meet you:

  • Can I trust this person?
  • Can I respect this person?

She refers to these dimensions as warmth and competence, respectively. To make a good impression you do need both. However, the sequence is critical here: You first need to establish trust and only then is it time to establish your competence.

As Cuddy says in her book Presence:

“Trust is the conduit of influence. […] If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative. You might have great ideas, but without trust those ideas are impotent. A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”

Kelly Cohen, the speaker at our round table in Orlando and top advisor to Mayor Buddy Dyer of Orlando, is a brilliant example of leading with warmth. She is what Tiziana Casciaro refers to as a “lovable star” – someone who is both extremely warm and competent. Her warmth isn’t manufactured, but emanates from her authentic presence. She is an extremely personable woman who has a wicked sense of humor and shows a genuine interest in other people. Unlike so many others in positions of power, she doesn’t try and project a certain image. There is nothing contrived about her. Upon meeting her you know intuitively that what you see is what you get and that is what makes her trustworthy. This has been one of the cornerstones of her success as it has enabled her to build relationships and influence with so many key people.

II. Aim to be interested rather than interesting

“People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves. Morning, noon and after dinner” – Dale Carnegie

Ok, so you lead with warmth, but how do you then make sure these new contacts learn how competent you are? This need to be seen and appreciated makes many people itch with the need to talk about their own interests and achievements when they first meet someone. Unfortunately, as a result both parties tend to not be inclined to invest time and energy in listening to you – because just like you, they want to talk about themselves. As a result only those, who can suspend their own need to talk about themselves, will be truly successful in quickly and easily building new relationships. Because once you have shown real interest in the other party, they’ll feel a connection and see value in also getting to know you.

III. Be the one who actually gets things done for people.

This may all seem quite feasible, but here is the critical and difficult part:

To convert those new contacts into real new reciprocal relationships you need to CONTINUE TO BE INTERESTED way beyond that first meeting. That means investing effort into looking out for useful opportunities and information and introductions for this new contact.

So once you have made interesting new contacts don’t just connect to them on LinkedIn and move on. Instead, as Kelly Cohen shared with us, commit to spending 5 minutes each day to be that person who actually gets things done for other people.
Adam Grant recently popularized this concept of the 5-minute rule in his book Give and Take. In his book Adam Grant provides the following list of what you can do in just 5 minutes to help you deepen your relationships with your contacts:

  • Share knowledge that pertains to their particular interests
  • Help to build awareness of and interest in their work by sharing or commenting on one of their social posts
  • Introduce them to individuals who they might benefit from knowing
  • Try their product or service and offer concise, vivid and helpful feedback.
  • Write a short, specific and laudatory note (testimonial) to recognize or recommend someone, whether on LinkedIn or Yelp, or for them to publish on their company’s website

In a similar vain, many professionals are keen to serve on boards and committees. They believe it will look good on their resume and they see it as another networking platform. As a result most committees and boards contain some members who do just that – they “sit” on those committees and boards but do little more. It’s annoying, but as Kelly Cohen explained, the good news is that it will make your competence shine even brighter when you show up and are that person on the board or committee who truly invests their own time act to help move things forward.

Taken together, networking is not about going to an event and adding a few new contacts to your LinkedIn. That is only the beginning after which you have to really put in some serious effort to cultivate those new contacts into valuable reciprocal relationship. That takes energy, time and effort.

Networking is a marathon, not a sprint. But those who take it seriously enjoy significant upside as these relationships provide them with ready access to important information, referrals, job opportunities, or even deals and transactions.

IV. Don’t worry about being liked by everyone

“You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something, sometime in your life”- Winston Churchill

Many professional women worry about being liked. As a result women, when networking, tend to be more likely to shape shift their behavior, and even their views and opinions to please their “audience” of the moment.
However, showing genuine interest in a person does not mean that you have to agree with everything they say. In fact it will likely backfire as people will quickly pick up if it is insincere or forced. Instead let your responses be genuine reflections of your beliefs, values and opinions, as what is the use of starting any relationship, professional or personal, based on false premises? Moreover, being warm doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using your critical thinking when learning about someone’s endeavors. In fact, your candor is much more valuable to them than just meeting yes-sayers, as it may lead them to new valuable insights and opportunities. Just meeting people who agree with everything you say is not just boring, it is useless, as it doesn’t help you progress.

So, paradoxically, by not worrying about being liked and being real when you meet someone, you may actually become more likeable because you are more authentic and more likely to add value.

And even so, there will be people who just won’t like you. C’est la vie. If they are critical for your business, then you might, as Kelly advised, have to find a colleague or peer who is better suited to cultivate that particular relationship. Or, if it is a person in your organization who is critical to your career, then you just have to find ways to influence his perception of you through relationships with people around him or her.

V. Be memorable

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou.

Kelly shared with us that this is one of her favorite quotes and something she is very aware of when she meets people. This is also why she often uses her humor to lighten the mood of an interaction, because people want to enjoy the people they work with.

She has also made a conscious decision that she is a “hugger”. No awkward handshakes or air kisses. Just an energetic, real hug that immediately communicates her warmth and interest in the person.

In a similar vain, she doesn’t worry too much about dressing to impress. She is comfortable with her fashion sense but she focuses on living by the mantra “Don’t try to be the prettiest in the room; be the most fascinating”

There are many other ways to be memorable. Just remember that the key is how you make others feel.

VI. One size does not fit all.

Most people tend to use the channel of communication that they prefer – email, phone, text, meetings, breakfast, lunch, after work drinks etc. However, remember it is not about you, it is about them.

So it is important to be attuned to your contacts’ relationship preferences. Do they like to chat on the phone? Or do they prefer to keep things immediate and short via text? Or do they like it all written out in detail in an email? Or do they prefer to chat over coffee or a glass of wine?
There simply is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all strategy to successfully cultivating and maintaining relationships. If you want to become a true Jedi of networking like Kelly Cohen then you need to change your approach person by person.

Read more: The Trait That Can Make Or Break A Leader

Useful resources


How to Win Friends & Influence People

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life


How Your Network Impacts Your Leadership Potential

5 Misconceptions About Networking