Business networking at church: a guide for Mormon women

In a recent conversation in the Aspiring Mormon Women Facebook group (which, by the way, is a great employment support resource for Mormon women), the topic of networking came up. Networking is especially important–and especially difficult–for women looking for an on-ramp into the labor force after a period of being a SAHM, but it’s difficult to know where to start. Meetup-type activities billed as “networking events” are often far inferior to more organic forms of networking around genuine shared interests. But how many Mormons (especially Mormon women and moms) have time to join local hobby clubs or hang out at the golf clubhouse?

At the risk of stating the obvious, I would just add that for Mormons, church is often the best place to do networking, simply because we spend a lot of time there. Of course, women often have a disadvantage in this sphere, because men often have career-related conversations at church and church activities while women tend not to, and women and men don’t often cross over in conversations. This post is a guide for women on how to engage in friendly, natural career networking at Mormon in Mormon social circles, and in particular how to seek networking conversations with men.

Before we continue, please take a moment to read this Important Disclaimer:

For the love of all that is Holy (literally), please do not use church, church activities, church contact list information, church networks, church friends, or any other church-related resource to sell your essential oils, nutritional supplements, or anything else related to any MLM scheme. This article is not intended to support or endorse anything about those industries, which I believe are interpersonally obnoxious, financially specious (on the downline), and financially exploitative (on the upline). Not as bad, but still what I consider to be a gray area, would be more traditional industries that are still heavily based in networking (e.g., realtors, dentists). All of these risk becoming obnoxious if a person doesn’t self-police to ensure treading very lightly on using church contacts. It should also be noted that using church directory information for business purposes is prohibited by the church and also a sleazy thing to do. This article is intended to help people find more run of the mill informal mentoring and advice from their community, not to treat their community like ore to be extracted.

(end of Important Disclaimer)

 

Step 1: Identifying Potential Contacts

You’ll want to build up a mental list of people who work in your field or a related field, or might otherwise have advice or contacts that could be helpful to you. In our family-oriented church, people often keep a mental tally of how many children each family has and their ages. It’s one of the first get-to-know-you small talk questions that will come up. Consider adding career information to this mental tally. I’m not suggesting displacing that family interest with interest in vocation, and I’m certainly not advocating furthering the American cultural norm of primarily defining people by their professions, but it’s a useful data point to keep track of.

Take a genuine interest in learning what people do and what career path led them to their current place. Many paths take strange turns, and that fact alone is comforting! Make an effort to get to know new people who move into the ward, but also keep in mind that when it comes to the career parts of their lives, even some of your best ward friends may be relative strangers to you (again, because conversations between men and women at church so rarely discuss career). So for stranger and friend alike, you’ll need a strategy for initiating this new connection (or new form of connection).

Remember that even people who don’t work in your field might still be useful mentors with relevant wisdom on broad topics like resolving conflicts and negotiation. Finally, don’t overlook the older folks in your ward. Retirees have a wealth of experience to share.

 

Step 2: Starting the Mentoring Conversation

Observe when and where you see men congregating and having conversations about non-church topics (e.g., sports, career)–those would be good times/places for you to join, too! Ward parties and social events are designed for getting to know new people and talking about non-church topics, but foyers and parking lots on a Sunday aren’t only for the spiritual.

Let me set a scene for the sake of giving a concrete example:

Say I’m at a table at a ward Halloween chili cookoff and I strike up a conversation with a man at the table (per Step 1, if you’ve identified someone who could be useful, make sure you’re at that table!). Without direct action from me, he’ll usually default to the “I’m talking to a woman” set of conversation topics, such as kids, etc. Now, because I’ve done my homework and paid attention to what people do, I have an opportunity to be friendly but very direct in zeroing in on a career topic. I’ll say, “I’ve heard you practice law, is that right? What kind of work do you do?” He might still give a cursory answer, expecting the conversation to quickly go back to family. But if I follow up with, “Well, I sometimes do legal consulting work. I’d love to pick your brain about what your firm looks for when you hire consultants,” then I’ll see that kind of <<record scratch>> look in his eyes of his brain switching gears, and then he’ll almost always switch quite immediately into business mode. From then on he’s having a different conversation with me. Most men these days are very accustomed to treating women at work as normal colleagues, so although they often operate in a different mode with women at church, I’ve had good luck in triggering the mode switch by just showing that I’m interested in going that direction.

Again, don’t shy away from being very direct in asking for what you want in terms of the desired topic of conversation. When done with genuine interest in the other person and their experiences (and not as part of a direct sales pitch–see Important Disclaimer), I’ve never experienced pushback on this. Frankly, many people find it a relief to talk about something “real” (their career/passions) rather than struggle to invent small talk for the sake of filling time.

If you have specific information that you need, or particular pressing issues that you need mentorship advice to tackle, by all means bring those issues up in the conversation. More general conversation-starters include prompts like:

  • How did you get started in your field?
  • What is the most interesting [client/case/project] you’ve worked on lately?
  • If you were starting your career today, what opportunities would you be most excited about pursuing? (Could be a particular specialization that didn’t exist when they were actually starting out, or a different business model with an opportunity today that didn’t exist when they were starting out, etc. I often get great advice with this question.)
  • What is a quality you wish more of your employees had (or had more of)?
  • When you hit roadbumps or frustrations in your job, what is the spark that brings you back to remembering what you love about it?
  • I’m interested in doing more networking. Where can I go to meet more people in our field?

Many of these prompts assume that you are more junior than the person you’re talking to, because more senior people are often helpful mentors. But I hope in framing the questions this way I don’t lead anyone to act too “junior” in these conversations! Remember that you are a colleague. If you’re brand new, don’t feel that is a negative or an embarrassing deficit. Instead, redirect that newness to a positive: you have fresh energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity–so let it shine.  Be confident, or at least act confident. Carry yourself like it’s a given that eventually you’ll be just as much of a leader in the field as the mentor whose advice you’re seeking. You aren’t asking for rescue, you’re a great player asking for some tips to sharpen your game. Speaking as someone who is now in a position to provide career mentoring to others on a daily basis, please believe me when I say don’t be apologetic or be overly effusively grateful. That just makes your mentor feel awkward, not more appreciated. Remember, men swap this kind of advice all the time. Senior people in a field mentor others all the time; in fact, that’s a key part of what defines “Senior” in a job title. You aren’t asking for special favors here, so be grateful but never grovel.

 

Step 3: Follow-Up

A good time to begin the post-conversation follow-up is before you even end the conversation. Say something like, “It’s been so great talking to you, …” followed by an opening for the future such as:

  • … Let’s connect on LinkedIn.
  • … Let me give you my card. Don’t hesitate to email if you have any leads to send my way.
  • … I’d love to talk again after our store opening next month.
  • … Can I get your email?

I find that a good way to keep the conversation going is to send a thank you note by email after the conversation. If the conversation was very one-sided in terms of the mentoring (with me in the junior role), it will be more of a thank-you note (but again, no groveling!). If the conversation was more of a peer mentoring, then it will be more of a “it was great talking to you” note.  Another great way to stay in touch is to send a (very occasional) article link when you run across something that is of mutual interest (don’t be that uncle who is basically an RSS feed of his favorite news outlet in your inbox).

 

Conclusion

I’ve found that having more of these conversations has enriched my enjoyment of our church community, as well my career strategy. Every career has ups and downs, and there’s nothing like the feeling that you have people who are in your corner when your stock is down, and people who are invested and celebrating for your stock is up. In a previous ward, my work life was almost a secret identity that few women or men in the ward knew about. There were even (rare) judgmental comments from those who did know, suggesting that I should be “in the home” and not focused on a career. I’ve found that by opening up more, I’ve received so much more acceptance and support. I hope that over time these conversations will start up more naturally, and the gender sorting barriers that tend to arise (quite unconsciously) in our social gatherings will fade, so we can offer each other that kind of support. But there is no need to wait–we just need to start the conversations.

Comments

  1. The –record scratch– look from men at church is so real! But in my experience it fades incredibly fast when I stick to career-related conversation topics. And then I end up with a large host of professional male church friends I can geek out –err, “network”– with.

  2. Wonderful post! I had to learn the hard way to be careful who I chat about work with. I’ve several times made SAHMs or retired SAHMs feel uncomfortable because talking about work emphasizes that they don’t work and can feel like an attack to them. This came out in a RS lesson (not complaining about me personally, but I got the point). When I talk to men, I always ask about their employment out of a real sense of interest. I like finding out what people do (okay, and I’m always looking for future internships for my kids). I’ve picked up a couple of clients through church which is great, but I have to watch out because even more I find ward members want me to offer to help them for free.

  3. There are a couple of very successful women in my Ward who I would like to get this same kind of “mentoring” from. As a man do you see any changes I should make to this advice?

  4. I love the networking advice. I was lucky enough to be mentored by an older woman at church while I was searching for jobs in my field. She was in a completed unrelated field but gave me great advice and kept up with my progress.

    I think it’s a shame if women feel like they can’t talk to each other about work, or that women feel judged for working or not working. All of the SAHMs I know have a side hustle or two and most have plans to work in the future after their kids are in school or out of the house. Cutting work out of the conversation is taking out a huge part of our lives that we can share with each other.

  5. This is a great resource, Cynthia. Thank you!

  6. I confess I was initially pretty skeptical coming into this post. The idea of networking at church grates on me for all the reasons you address so well in the important disclaimer—probably because I’m terrible at networking and am looking for reasons to justify myself for not doing it. But this is full of good advice both for men and for women. Great post, Cynthia.

  7. Aaron – I personally would find it hugely flattering if a man brought up work with me at church (which probably has a lot to do with the uneven power dynamic inherent to church).

    I’d say that the danger, and this is true of networking overall not just man—>woman, is being too forward. Have a decent relationship before you ask for favors. So conversation number one should be asking the other person about their work and also asking about other things in their life as well. Conversation two is a come-back question or two about work with then more development of the personal relationship. Then third conversation is soliciting advice, “I was thinking about approaching XYZ and I know you have contacts there. What do you think about that?”

  8. nobody, really says:

    I’d add that if you serve with Young Men, Young Women, Activity Days, or Scouts, the opportunities abound to have professionals talk to the youth about careers. The questions you’d ask a professional person about their career are pretty close to the questions you’d ask in front of the youth.

    And a hearty So Say We All on the Important Disclaimer. If I was in charge of the church, I’d add “Do you support or participate in any groups that rely on recruiting salespeople for your MLM downline?” to the recommend interview. I’m still torn on whether to put it with “Are you honest?” or “Do you support or advocate any splinter groups?” It might belong with both.

  9. We’d loose a bishopric member and a good portion of the primary presidency if those were added to the TR interview… (Not that I disagree with you in any way.)

  10. Thanks ReTx: Good advice. I certainly need to work on building a relationship there without the unfortunate side effect of seeming creepy or inappropriate. I think context and outreach outside of church are going to be key for me on that and certainly follow-up. We are in completely different fields but one sister in particular is very successful at managing a team for a large company, a situation I may find myself in soon (hopefully).

  11. I personally would find it weird to talk with people about their work in a “seeking for mentorship way.” I would probably choose to ask general questions, and if after a couple of minutes it seemed to go into a productive direction, frankly ask if they are OK with continuing the conversation as is (taking up a lot of time), or if they would be open to meeting or something for a networking opportunity. Having said that, I did just this when I found a physics major who had graduated from BYU in the last 5 years (and needed info about girls as science majors at BYU), and so we talked extensively. I have found some men look at me like I have 3 heads, when I talk knowledgeably about something. But it is often a more interesting discussion over there. I tend to cross over frequently.

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