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Strapped for time? The working mom's guide to networking

Remember this, working parents: You do not have to attend every after-work event, just the ones that really matter. And how do you know which ones matter? Jennifer Folsom explains.
Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," which will be out this fall.
Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," which will be out this fall.Mary Gardella Photography

A working parent’s most precious resource is time. When it comes to building relationships at your job or within your industry, you cannot afford to waste even one hour. It may sound shallow, but you need to be highly strategic with the relationships you build, both inside and outside your organization. You need to identify up front who is important and how to connect.

I remember when I first went back to work after my twins were born. They were 6 months old, and I was starting a new job at a Big 4 Consulting Firm immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was an intense time in Washington, D.C., and I was making a career pivot from finance into management consulting after the markets fell apart.

I negotiated a flexible, early schedule (7 a.m. - 4 p.m., plus a post-bedtime email check-in) and frankly, the job was not that hard. You want to know what was hard? Worrying all the time about what other people thought of me.

Jenn Folsom with twins Josh and Will in 2002.
Jenn Folsom with twins Josh and Will in 2002.

I was constantly stressing out about my reputation, not wanting to be disliked by my colleagues for sneaking out the door at 4 p.m. to relieve the nanny. I’d frequently pay the nanny time-and-a-half so I could attend every single happy hour for office birthdays, promotions and other engagements.

Looking back, I was wasting emotional energy and social capital I didn’t have just so people would like me. I wasn’t strategic with whom I built relationships.

Remember this, working parents: You do not have to attend every after-work event, just the ones that really matter. And how do you know which ones matter? It’s simple: Any major milestones for your boss, assistant or your second-in-command.

Want to know what you don’t have time for? Being popular. Not everyone needs to like you, nor should they. You are an adult, and this is a job — not high school. Be polite, respectful and let the rest of it go.

Here’s your road map to networking if you’re trying to juggle both your family and career:

Inside your organization

No drama mama: You must be unfailingly pleasant and polite to everyone. It is not as hard as it sounds. There is no time in your day for drama or difficult relationships. This is so basic it hurts, but do it: Greet every coworker with a smile and make direct eye contact, minimal chit-chat required.

Know who matters most: Early on, identify who in the organization matters to getting your job done. Your boss? Obviously. But also think long and hard about where hang-ups in your day might happen. Is it a counterpart in another business unit? Mary in accounting who drafts your invoices? The administrative assistant who controls the conference rooms? Find those people, figure out what makes them tick, and proactively make their lives easier. This positive workplace karma will pay you back tenfold.

Raise your profile: You need people to know who YOU are, and fast. Volunteer for a committee that has high visibility, maybe one in corporate philanthropy that plans one big event per year the C-level executives attend. Do not volunteer for any social or “sunshine” committees, in an office setting. To quote Elaine Benes from “Seinfeld,” every day is someone’s “special day.” Don’t turn into the “office mom” or you’ll be on Safeway bakery cake pick up duty on a weekly basis . Instead, pick something you enjoy, preferably that happens once or twice per year, and that has wide recognition.

Outside your organization

If you do not think you have time for networking and relationship-building inside your organization, it’s easy to think you don’t have time for it outside your job. But you need to, and here is why. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American stays in his or her job for 4.2 years. That means that if your organization’s promotion cycle is two to three years, you will likely get promoted only once by your boss before wanting or needing a new job.

Do you really want to start from scratch again in four years? This should light a fire under you to understand the importance of building and maintaining a network outside of your organization.

So how do you find the time between work and rushing home, putting dinner on the table, starting your 7th grader on math homework, and wrangling a toddler? By being very strategic.

1:1 networking. Okay. You know you need to do this, but where do you start? And how do you do it without feeling, well, icky? Networking in a way that’s authentic, natural and feels right for you can be a challenge to figure out. Reach out with mutual benefit in mind, and remember this is a win-win for both parties.

Who should I meet with? Think about the individuals in your life and work that matter most to you, the ones you don’t work with right now. Find a way to stay connected with them, and by golly schedule it. Putting it on the calendar is the only way to get this done. Maybe it’s your last boss before you took maternity leave, favorite graduate school professor, or your former assistant who is now three levels higher. Professional relationships that really click are rare, and they take effort and commitment to keep up.

How and when do we meet? I’m a big fan of the coffee date. It’s 30-45 minutes, $10 and can be squeezed into a packed calendar.

What’s my angle? Come prepared to discuss one big topic or something you would like their advice on, but focus on what your work mate needs. Ask lots of questions. Offer to help or make referrals and remember to follow up.

Group networking. Ahh, the group networking event. Here in Washington, D.C., you could attend three of these a night if you wanted and survive on a diet of white wine spritzers and mini-quiches. On one hand, they are an efficient way to meet or keep up with a lot of people. On the other, these relationships are often superficial and this is pure torture for introverts. If it works for you, do it!

Find your people. As an entrepreneur, I was a founding member, group leader and big cheerleader of Her Corner, an organization that supports the growth of female-led companies. These were my people. I lived for their events. But once I made the tough decision to put my own business on the shelf when my largest client created a spot on their management team for me, I felt lost. When women there asked what I did for a living, I felt a bit like a fraud attending a networking group for female entrepreneurs when I had—maybe temporarily—become a corporate hack.

I knew I had to find a new professional group but didn’t know where. By asking those individuals with whom I network on a quarterly basis, I was able to come up with two strong organizations that feel right for where I am professionally and are in the Venn diagram sweet spot of being comfortable enough for me to make a priority but still push me out of my comfort zone.

Biggest bang for your time buck. If you hold a professional certification, particularly one that requires a continuing education credit, join that organization, go to events, get your credits, and mingle. Knock all of that out in one to two events per year.

Go deep. The secret sauce is getting really involved and seeking prominent or leadership roles in one of these organizations. Rather than being a surface-level player in four or five organizations, find one that helps grow your network and where you feel the most comfortable, and really go deep. What does “going deep” mean? It means raising your hand, volunteering, leading, being “out there.” Like dating, you may have to kiss a number of proverbial frogs before you find your people. But when you do, it won’t feel like extra work. My secret tip is to get on the membership committee. It is high visibility to organizational leaders, and you get to meet all new and potential members before they even walk in the door.

The bottom line: Who you know matters a heck of a lot more than what you know. And that only becomes more important as your career develops. You need to prioritize building and maintaining your network even though — and maybe because — it’s the last thing on your busy to do list.

Jennifer Folsom is the chief of corporate development at Washington, D.C.-based data analytics consulting firm Summit LLC. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.