“Networking” sounds awful, right? At first blush, most of us think it’s fake and scummy, not to mention overwhelming and intimidating. For working parents, the time commitment alone of traditional networking (those after work dinner or drinks events) feels nearly impossible and, at best, a downright drag on our family life. Fear not… there’s a better way!
For the first ten years of my career, I worked on the front lines of a professional services firm. I spent nearly all of my time visiting and serving our clients. Six of those years I worked with private equity fund clients. I rolled up to a traditional networking event, likely one of only a handful of women among hundreds of men and almost certainly one of the youngest by many years. I used to tell my dad that, while at the events, I felt like I was just hanging out with a bunch of his friends. That’s not exactly fun or exciting for a female in her late twenties.
Certainly not all formal networking events feel this way. But enough of them left me feeling awkward, uncomfortable, and way out of my league that I pretty much gave up attending. Upon having children, my desire to attend these events dropped precipitously. Spending more time away from my family felt like such a strain on our already limited evening time together. I knew there had to be a better and more effective way to feed my circle of business connections than trying to fit into a crowd where I’d always feel like an outlier.
Sometimes sustainable living is about going green or buying more thoughtfully or supporting brands that more responsibly manage their supply chain. On a grander scale, though, sustainable living entails practicing rituals or habits that don’t leave us so emotionally, mentally or physically exhausted that they can’t be sustained. Particularly as parents, cramming our calendars with unenjoyable drinking and dinner obligations (if, in fact, they’re unenjoyable) is not sustainable. Thus, I’m sharing my list of “networking” opportunities that I think are much more feasible and meaningful for parents than traditional evening events (if those aren’t your thing).
Even if you’re not in the corporate world or working in an environment that immediately requires making connections, having a solid network of friends, supporters and advocates in your life can make all the difference. Here are a few ideas to keep growing that network of people looking out for your best interest. I’ve also included related alternatives that apply to your personal life and aren’t so “corporate” for each idea.
15 Easy Networking Ideas You’ll Actually Want To Try
1. Find networking organizations targeting your peer group.
In many professions, there are specific groups that host events intended for younger attendees. Generally, the location or activity caters to younger interests. More importantly, attendees arrive to a room full of people in similar positions of seniority and with comparable levels of experience.
A CEO doesn’t have much interest in establishing a relationship with a lower level associate. Two peers, however, mutually benefit from beginning a professional friendship and likely will be great contacts and referral sources for each other a few years down the road when they begin to gain influence. These types of organizations help attendees find people with similar lifestyles and goals as their own, which can certainly help make it feel easier to squeeze events into busy young parenting lives.
Personal Network Alternative: Attend an event related to a hobby you have or one you’re looking to start exploring. Try attending a Meetup event or participating in one of the new Airbnb experiences. Did you know Airbnb has a category of Social Impact Experiences focused on supporting socially conscious causes? Enjoy being a tourist in your own town.
2. Host a social event for charity.
One great example of an event like this is a chili cook-off. Maybe it’s not chili, but whatever your friends and contacts are cooking up for a friendly competition, gather everyone together to raise money for a good cause. Charge per person for attendance while several people bring their best fare for the competition. All proceeds benefit your charity of choice and everyone has a good time.
As the coordinator, you earn “brownie points” (a.k.a. personal brand points) for doing a good deed for charity. You also offer all attendees a chance to expand their own network. One of the best ways to build your network is to help others, and attendees will appreciate your efforts to help them build their personal brands by sharing your own. Because it’s a casual event, it could also include families, which helps limit the time away from family that’s often a consequence of many networking events.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all.
3. Teach a training class.
By teaching a relevant class to colleagues (or even a group of friends), you have an opportunity to offer valuable information to coworkers and create relationships with attendees. You also get the chance to become known as an expert in something, so people are likely to consider you a valuable resource and return to you for expertise down the road. All these touch points as the instructor and the resource later help build a relationship with contacts that provides value to them, an excellent source of networking and one that happens almost entirely during business hours.
Personal Network Alternative: Have a few friends over to share about your hobby if they are interested in learning. Maybe you love to garden, are a top-notch home chef, or take beautiful photos? Have them over to teach them a thing or two about your passion. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, host your class at your local library as one of their programs. Many libraries are often searching for interesting classes and seminars to share with their patrons.
4. Organize and host a seminar for your clients.
While this may not apply to all professions, many people have clients or customers. Your boss, or maybe your boss’ boss, might be the owner of the relationship with those clients. Providing industry training, a networking opportunity or other professional development event provides benefit to those clients or prospects. An event like this bodes well not only for the organizer but also for the sponsoring employer (your company) and your boss who can invite his or her contacts to the event.
While the contacts may not be yours specifically, offering to coordinate and plan such an event provides an opportunity to connect with those contacts and showcase your leadership skills to your boss. Like teaching training, much of the time spent coordinating this event can fall into regular business hours (or, if necessary, after your kids are in bed).
Personal Network Alternative: Host a dinner party (a seminar without the heavy technical components). If you want something a little “educational”, have dinner and then watch your favorite documentary together. The True Cost, River Blue and Just Eat It are a few conscious living recommendations.
5. Organize an after work company sports team.
The cost to join a league like softball, basketball, or kickball comprised of company teams often isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of a company’s budget. Many companies will sponsor a team not only for brand awareness but also to foster positive morale among employees. If you have a favorite sport that’s conducive to casual team competition for your company, organize a team. Similar to the charity event above, team members will not only appreciate the games themselves but also the opportunity to get to know others within your company. Your significant other can bring the children to watch the game, which many kids often enjoy.
Personal Network Alternative: Gather up a team and play through your local sport and social club. Many cities have leagues that are easy to join if you pull together a few friends.
6. Organize a volunteer event for your co-workers.
Many companies host periodic volunteer days allowing employees to participate in community service activities during normal business hours. If your company already does this, consider leading one of the events. At the very least, be sure to attend.
Although we all spend lots of time with our colleagues at the office, sharing time together outside the office provides a more relaxed and casual environment to get to know people outside of their professional roles. If your company doesn’t already have a day like this, consider trying to organize one. It may be a little more challenging but could prove more beneficial to the growth of your personal brand as well.
Personal Network Alternative: Same plan but with friends instead of co-workers. Organize a drive to gather food for a food bank or supplies for an organization that aids those in need. Put together a team for Habitat for Humanity. Inquire if a local non-profit, like your library, needs landscaping work done. Consider gleaning together for your local food bank.
7. Gather up a team to run a 5k together.
Pull together a team of your co-workers (and if you’re really lucky, your company might pay for it). Better yet, include some peers at work and encourage everyone to invite a couple of their own professional contacts outside the company. Each person shares a piece of their network for the benefit of the group and everyone has a chance to meet some new people. If you invite clients or prospects, it’s even more likely the company will pay for it.
Alternatively, encourage colleagues to bring their families and make it an event where families can get to know each other. Many charitable runs offer fun runs or walks in which children can participate.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all. Include some friends who don’t already know each other to make it a more unique gathering.
8. Coordinate group golf lessons.
Several years ago, I actually did this. I rounded up a group of 5 co-workers, clients and other professionals for a six week series of introductory golf lessons. Not only did the six of us really get to know each other better, the others appreciated my efforts to coordinate this for them. Further, it pays to be proficient on the golf course in many corporate industries so we spent our “networking time” also doing something that provided future benefit to our professional development and personal brand.
I shared a three part series a while back, Beginner’s Guide to Surviving a Professional Golf Outing, that offers great detail on the basic jargon, what to wear and what to bring, and a few other miscellaneous Q&A items.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all. It also doesn’t have to be golf. Take lessons in dancing, boxing, cooking, ping pong, cookie decorating or painting, just to name a few.
9. Invite a group to attend a local fashion show together.
A few years ago, I gathered coworkers, clients and others in our professional networks to attend a fashion show held by the local arts university. It was a huge hit! We grabbed drinks at a bar for a little happy hour before the show and enjoyed a really cool production. You can imagine a bunch of accountants and other finance professionals showing up at a fashion show and looking a little out of place, to say the least. But the tickets were free, so I didn’t have to get it approved by my company, and everyone asked me to organize a similar event the next year.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all. If not into fashion, coordinate hitting up a concert, comedy show, or local play.
10. Organize the company holiday party (or any company party).
Not only do you get to decide what to do, so you know you’ll enjoy it, you also get lots of recognition for putting on a fun event. We have ‘fun committees’ in our company. Members are responsible for organizing events in different locations, so you could make your contribution more formal by joining a group like this. If your company doesn’t have any formal event committees, throw your own party.
M’s group at work didn’t have any events during the year to which spouses and families were invited, so he decided to host one himself. We’ll be having the second annual spring party for his group at work in just a few weeks at our house.
Personal Network Alternative: Just throw a regular old house party with lots of friends from various aspects of your life. Work friends, parents from your children’s schools or activities, church, neighbors, whatever suits you.
11. Meet up for breakfast.
If you can help your spouse get the children off to school and daycare, breakfast meet ups can be much easier to execute than dinner. It also lends itself to a shorter and more concise meeting because the meals are smaller and both parties probably have mornings commitments as a reason to curtail the meal. That you won’t be drinking at breakfast (most likely) also benefits the efficiency and productivity of the discussion.
Personal Network Alternative: While traveling for work, I’ve met up with friends for breakfast that lived in the area, particularly when I knew I wouldn’t otherwise have time to catch up with them.
12. Grab coffee, tea or lunch so you can meet during standard business hours.
Midday meetings are a great way to connect in person with someone without eating up a lot of personal time. Coffee or tea (or hot chocolate for those of us non coffee / tea drinkers) also make for a much less expensive and informal venue for meet up than a lunch or dinner reservation.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! Just call a friend instead of a potential business contact.
13. Work out together.
Getting sweaty with your clients in spandex might not be everyone’s forte (totally get it). But if you are up for the fitness challenge, it’s a great way to knock out your work out and your work at the same time. Take a walk or a run together. Go for a hike through a local park. Attend a fitness class (barre, spinning, kickboxing, etc…). Maybe even have a walking meeting through the streets of downtown (and then you don’t have to get so sweaty).
Personal Network Alternative: As is! Working out with a friend is always better than sweating it out alone, right?
14. Do someone a favor.
While it may not be a traditional form of networking, doing someone a favor is a great way to gain “assets in your relationship bank account.” I’m not suggesting that you tally up the nitty gritty and do nice things for others with the expectation of getting a favor in return. Favors with ulterior motives are about the worst kind to receive. Genuine favors, however, are a great means for developing a rapport with people and having more people who trust you and look out for your interests.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all.
15. Make a call just to catch up, without an ask.
Not all of us are great about making phone calls just to say hi. (I’m terrible about this…). However, an unsolicited phone call with no strings attached and no requests for anything (favors, business asks, etc…) offers another touch point to keep you on a person’s radar. Next time they have an opportunity that might be a good fit for you, you’ll be near top of mind and hopefully one of their first calls to pass along the referral or opportunity. If not, that’s ok; it was a no strings attached phone call after all. But it can’t hurt!
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all.
16. Connect two friends, colleagues or business connections.
One of the most valuable networking steps we can take is connecting others. The return likely won’t be immediate, but it often pays big dividends down the road if the new introduction is valuable.
Personal Network Alternative: As is! This doesn’t have to be work-related at all. One time I set up two friends on a blind date and now they are married with two kids. How fun, right? Just recently, I connected a fellow hockey parent, who owns a new restaurant, with a family member who could work as a bus boy at the restaurant. It was a win-win for both of them, and I just sent a few texts. (You’re probably already doing things like this…)
As you can see, so many activities can become the base or foundation for a fun, age-appropriate networking event. We don’t have to attend stuffy, chit-chat dinners filled with a bunch of people that remind us of our parents’ friends. Networking and building your personal brand really just involves sharing your skills and connections with others to provide mutual benefit and letting others know how you can help them. A little outreach goes a long way (and it doesn’t have to be stressful or take over our calendars).
Got a friend or colleague who would love one or all of these ideas? Share this with them! Connect them with some valuable information, another great (and really easy) way to network.