Want to know the true benefits of professional networking? According to a recent study by Nielsen, 92% of people trusted referrals from people they know above all else.

Sure, sharpening up that resume will take you a long way, but it might not be as valuable as a single glowing recommendation from a powerful professional ally.

During Women in SaaS Summit 2021, Sallianne Buttsworth, Financial Controller at CENTURY Tech, led this riveting and timely discussion between three of the industry’s leading voices. Speaker’s included:

  • Gauri Chawla, Vice President at Global Partners & Alliances at inRiver
  • Danielle Hill, Management Consultant at Accenture
  • Naimeesha Murthy, Senior Product Manager at Google

What is the difference between a sponsor, ally, and mentor?

Naimeesha Murthy: I actually pivoted from a non-technical role to a technical role, from marketing to product management. The reason I speak about mentorship is because I think it's been extremely beneficial for me, both personally and professionally.

I think it’s really outdated to think of a mentorship as a relationship between someone who's extremely experienced and someone who's extremely inexperienced. A mentorship can actually be quite an informal relationship, it doesn't have to follow the traditional model.

Anyone can be a mentor to anyone potentially. Sponsorship, in particular, is not something that is extremely accessible for a lot of people, and the definition between mentors, coaches, sponsors, advisors is somewhat blurry and interchangeable. I think it's important for us to unpack that in this conversation.

Gauri Chawla: With any of these three areas, one piece of advice that I would give is that you are responsible for yourself, and for your career, and for your network. You can get some advice from somebody, but don't look for direction from them. That’s really the key distinction.

When looking at mentorship, it's a relationship where you can bounce things off somebody, and you can get some coaching. But it's not somebody who's going to tell you what to do. I think sometimes people think that's what they're getting.

I think with sponsorship you've got to be able to prove yourself in a certain situation and have somebody back you up. It’s about somebody being an influence on you, but it’s still about you proving yourself ultimately.

What most people don't realize about these three areas is that you have to be in control and you have to decide what you want and you have to be able to communicate it.

You don't always have to know exactly what you want, but you have to have some responsibility for yourself. A mentor, an ally, or a sponsor can only help you to navigate that.

Naimeesha Murthy: Our assumption about networking, that you go into a party and you exchange business cards, that’s just not the way it's done.

One of my co-workers went to a networking party, and she said that people would just talk briefly, then disappear and never come back. They just never came back.

That's not what networking is all about. Networking is not about going to a party and telling people that you’re looking for a job. It's never going to end well; it's never gonna go anywhere.

First of all, when you go into any situation, think about what you have to offer. Also, what can you gain? At least, you're gonna gain some amazing relationships, it could even mean a referral to a job.

It could be making your best friends or a co-founder for your passion project. That's how you look at networking. And then maybe along the way, in six months, or one year from now, they're gonna be helpful to you.

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Danielle Hill: I think what's really important around networking is that it encourages meeting new people. Yes, it can benefit you, it can benefit your career.

But actually meeting new people from different backgrounds and diverse communities actually helps generate ideas and encourages innovation. If you make friendships, it can be a two-way thing as well.

So yes, they might be able to help you in the future. And actually, that's not necessarily going to get you a better job or a higher salary, but it also comes with that power of coming up with new ideas through meeting new people. It comes with the opportunity to implement change together.

Can you share some really cool stories about how your network has evolved organically over time?

Gauri Chawla: I was writing a blog and a book and a friend introduced me to a woman who is now helping me learn how to write. It's amazing.

And now this woman has connected me to other people who are in my industry writing business books. I actually got one of my jobs because of my network. I wasn't even looking for a job and somebody in my network referred me to someone.

I was just chilling on a beach in Spain and they contacted me with a job offer. But these are long-lasting relationships that I’ve nurtured over time. It’s important to nurture your relationships.

But people need different things, and it’s important to nurture things in different ways. You just never know when something will happen, because somebody thought of you and brought your name up somewhere. Be curious. Keep meeting new people.

Naimeesha Murthy: The entire network that I’ve built over time has really been based on having the courage to ask for things. I still recall the first event that we had. I reached out to a senior leader at Forbes and asked her to come and speak at a panel? And she said yes. It was amazing to see the solidarity between women brought together.

We've had over 300 leaders give back their time to the community and create professional development opportunities.  And it can be accessible and completely free. But it's all about the power of asking. The other important element is authenticity. Be honest and be authentic with your questioning. I think it's extremely important.

But also don't be afraid to bump a request back up to your leaders through email. Often, they probably just haven’t seen your email. Asking for help can be a really proactive way of building connections. It’s not a sign of weakness.

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Danielle Hill: I do think there's a negative connotation that we associate with asking for help. Asking for help can imply that you're struggling and you can't cope. You can't meet the demands of a client or and there's loads of negative things associated with it.

Because asking for help might indicate that we don’t see ourselves as good enough to complete whatever task is put in front of us, for example. But I think that asking for help is actually a strength. Even just having a casual conversation with other professionals in the bathroom at an event can show curiosity.

It shows energy, enthusiasm, and authenticity. It will also help you to build your network. It will help you succeed more in the long term. I think we need to start thinking about asking for help in a more positive light, because it's something that can lead to such positive results.

When it comes to networking, how do you break through the small talk and make meaningful connections?

Naimeesha Murthy: For me, it was all about playing to my strengths. I knew I was really good at setting people at ease and making them feel comfortable. There wasn’t much of a space in tech for women of color at the time, so I had to flip the narrative.

I identified what I was good at and started playing more to my strengths. Believe it or not, I'm a complete introvert, but just because you’re an introvert doesn’t mean you don't have a lot of strengths.

You just have to identify them. I actually think the Covid period has been an amazing time for introverts to thrive.

We’ve been able to network through virtual communities, and that has removed some of the pressure of meeting in person. As an introvert, I was able to build a network of over 15,000 Women in 120 countries.

Gauri Chawla: The truth is, I don't think anyone really likes to network. Having to meet complete strangers and sell yourself feels a bit like a blind date! It’s pretty stressful. But at the end of the day, if you can go in with an open, curious mind, you’re not going to go far wrong.

People like to talk about themselves. If you kick off with the right question, a lot of times you’ll take the pressure off yourself and you won't have to do much talking. Think of it as a chance to learn and see things from a different angle.

Also, you should be a little picky about who you want in your network. Imagine you’re in complete control and you can choose who you want to talk to and who you don’t want to talk to. That takes some of the pressure off. And the truth is, the more you network, the easier it gets to do overtime.

Danielle Hill: When I first got started in this massive organization, I knew I wanted to build a network, but didn’t know where to start.

The first thing I did was to find someone that I really looked up to, then it was just a case of being really honest and asking them if they could be my mentor. That person is still my mentor today.

Having a role model is something that can really help in terms of building a network. If you’re more introverted it can maybe help to find a role model who’s more aligned with your personality type and ask them how they do it.

Once you’ve gotten over the initial hurdle, how do you continue to nurture that connection?

Danielle Hill: I think it comes back to that point around authenticity. I'm not saying that networking should be effortless. We’ve all agreed today that there are just some things that you have to do. You have to put yourself out there, and that requires some effort.

But maintaining that network should feel more effortless, genuine, and authentic. Once you’ve established common ground with someone, that back and forth relationship should become more natural. Don't try to fake it.

These relationships might start out more professional, but over time they should feel more like a friendship. They should feel more natural.

Naimeesha Murthy: It's impossible to stay in touch with everyone all the time. You're gonna go crazy trying to stay in touch with everyone.

That’s normal. You don’t try to force a connection when there isn’t one anymore. The same goes for networking. The connections that are the strongest will continue on organically.

Be authentic. Don’t try to force it. Treat it like you would any friendship.

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Gauri Chawla: But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to reach out to people.

When I'm in the country of folks that I’ve networked with, for example, I always try to drop them a line, just to let them know I’m thinking of them. You never know what that might lead to. They might have a new opportunity for you.

This might only seem like a small thing, but these little gestures, even if they don’t lead to anything in the short term, can really strengthen relationships over time.

Can you give three valuable pieces of advice when it comes to networking?

Gauri Chawla: Firstly, be curious. You never know how far a little bit of curiosity will take you. Secondly, take responsibility for yourself. Know what you want to create, and accept that others can only ever be a guide to you getting there.

You’re the one who has to take charge ultimately.  Finally, be yourself. Be true to yourself.  

If you do this,  the right things will happen for you and the right people will gravitate towards you, and the right opportunities will come your way. Leverage your network, build it and nurture it. You just never know what could happen.

Naimeesha Murthy: Put yourself out there. Show up even when you're exhausted. Be resilient.

Even on those days when you feel like things just aren’t working out for you know, just keep going. Just showing up is the most important part. From there, your network can start to grow.

Danielle Hill: Be bold, be confident, and even if you don't feel it inside, put on a front and go and speak to people. What's the worst that can happen? Nothing. It can't do any harm, particularly when you're trying to build your network. Also, be kind to each other.

When you see someone in your network who needs help, reach out, see what you can do for them and you never know what it’ll lead to. You never know when that person’s going to come through for you in a time of need.

Finally, stay curious. Keep being curious and encouraging discussion and healthy debate. You need to make sure you keep evolving and developing your ideas. This is achieved through networking, and once you adopt that mindset, more valuable connections will follow.

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