April 09, 1998|By KATE COLEMAN

Networking - developing contacts or exchanging information with others to further a career - is a well-established practice in the world of business.

The "old-boys network" has existed informally for years - businessmen "scratching the backs" of others they've met at the golf course or a service club luncheon.

More women have come into the work force, and women-owned businesses are increasing in number, range, diversity and earning power, according to U.S. Small Business Administration.

The idea of women networking is not new.

"We've always networked," says Niki Scott, who writes "Working Woman," a syndicated column that runs Sundays in The Herald-Mail. Whether it was gathering herbs, taking care of the children or the sick or birthing babies, women have banded together to do what needed to be done, she adds.


Scott believes networking is important. It should be put on the same list as finding the time to exercise a little, making sure you try to get enough rest and a little time alone every day - even if it's only a half hour.

It's also important to remember that networking is a mutual arrangement. "It's not a good idea to wait until you need help to network," Scott says.

Networking can happen when you're involved in the community. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising, according to Jocelyne Askins, a personal finance analyst with Primerica Financial Services in Hagerstown. Professional organizations promote self-improvement and confidence, Askins believes. Hearing stories about how others got through down times in their careers can teach you to keep your head above water until you can swim, she says.

Christina M. Lundberg, a business analyst with the Small Business Development Center at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va., belongs to several professional businesswomen's groups. For her, networking is about learning to utilize each other's expertise for your benefit or that of your client.

Balancing career and personal life can be difficult. Networking can provide support. Sometimes it's as simple as having someone else smile and understand when you've had a bad week, Lundberg says.

Networking shouldn't be an impressive-sounding buzzword for those in some exclusive in-crowd. The key is to keep it simple and not overcomplicate it, says Scott.

"Let's not start mixing guilt in with it," she warns.

The process can be formalized, but it needn't be formal, she says. Keeping in touch is the trick. Scott's suggestions for getting started include:

* Organize a Friday lunch check-in. Ask each person to invite two more people.

* Plan to meet for coffee or a drink after work.

* Send a brief e-mail message.

Brief is the operative word here.

"We're so busy," Scott says. "We don't have time to keep up with dear, old and valued friends."

Women have to hit the middle ground, Scott says. Although most of us don't want our relationships reduced to comparing football scores on Tuesday mornings, womens' natural inclination to connect and support can get in the way, Scott says. "I find myself exhausted," she says.

Although she's been writing and talking about this for more than 20 years, Scott still has to remind herself to set boundaries.

She recently received several short e-mails from people she met during speaking engagements and seminar presentations. The contacts were valuable, and she appreciated the information.

That's good networking.

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