I was over an hour late. I stood outside the building, slightly mortified at showing up at an after-work networking event at such an hour. I did a quick phone scan hoping for a last minute excuse… refresh. Nothing.

I climbed the stairs, found the door, made a beeline for the bar for a comfort object to clutch whilst doing the nonchalant nod and mingle. If anyone has ever walked in solo, you know what that looks like.

It is safe to say that as a full-time connector, I actually quite enjoy networking, except for the painful first few minutes where, for some reason, one feels like a bit of an intruder, even though a networking event is by default designed to bring all “intruders” together in support of everyone’s personal agenda.

The uncomfortable aspect of networking comes up time and time again at women’s career workshops and events, and while women praise the networking facet of the day as one of the most enriching aspects, intentionally leaning out to expand one’s network seems to bring some level of discomfort, primarily because people don’t know how to go about it. Yet, it is an essential component of one’s continually evolving goals and aspirations.

According to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), women are more successful when they have a close network of other professional women — an inner circle — on top of a strong connection to a general professional network. Having a close group of female connections can provide more than just an encouraging environment — it can be one of the best things you do for your personal and professional goals.

In addition, this research found that women with a high network centrality (i.e women’s primary network in complement to their female-dominated inner circle) had an expected job placement level that was 2.5 times greater than women with low network centrality and a male-dominated inner circle

Through these inner networks, women can benefit from superior access to information, such as job openings and interviewing strategies. Armed with these insights, a search for the next in-person networking opportunity should be high on your agenda. You simply can’t network effectively from the comfort of your phone.

If you find networking somewhat unpleasant, here are some suggestions for your consideration.

1) Prep it like it’s hot.

Bring your business cards, a pen, and paper (see point five as to why this matters).

2) Voice up.

Pop a throat lozenge and stay hydrated. Part of networking is using your vocal cords. People often tend to mumble as they mingle.

3) Arrive early.

Benefit from a good seat by getting a lay of the land and enjoying more one-on-one time to connect.

4) Bring a friend.

If you can’t go it alone, bring and ditch your friend – you need to expand your reach, so unglue yourself from your bestie for the duration of the event. Reward yourself with an after-venue recap.

5) Let ET phone home.

Leave your phone where it belongs: silenced in your bag. Make eye contact, not phone contact.

6) Opposites attract.

Approach your opposite: As a serial smiler, I tend to gravitate to the smiling faces. Approach someone different than you/someone you might not typically gravitate to naturally.

7) Embrace open questions.

Stuck for words, try open questions such as, “What brings you here?” or “What do you hope to get out of today?” Focus on shared interests if you are at a loss for words.

8) Sharing is caring.

You also have contacts – how can you help someone else?

9) Get out.

Give yourself an out if in-person networking is too trying for you. Know where the bathrooms are should you need a break or a time-out. Give yourself permission to leave.

10) Cross-pollinate.

Find women across different fields to broaden your range and explore different fields. Random interactions can lead to new and broader networks.

11) Late is still a date.

While not recommended, it can have benefits if you’re unable to get to the full event. At this point, people are relaxed, have already bonded with everyone, and are usually happy to meet a new face, even you only have a few minutes left of the event.

The HBR article “Men and Women Need Different Kinds of Networks to Success” underlined that women need dual networks and are best served with inner circles with minimal contacts in common. This is where the magic happens. Women need to maintain wide networks and informative inner circles.

Enlarging your network can greatly increase your success. Do explore the power of social groups if in-person networking is not an option. Happy leaning out in service of your ever-expanding outer circle of success!

this was first featured in Forbes on 11 Feb 2020