Next week, thousands of us will meet for the first time, reunite after far too much time apart, or simply enjoy the camaraderie of being in one place with so many industry peers at the 2018 Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Fresh Summit Convention and Expo. As a member of Center for Growing Talent Women’s Fresh Perspectives advisory committee, which aims to help build and strengthen the unique core leadership skills of women in the produce industry, I’ve been eagerly anticipating all that’s to come during the show.
We achieve more together
What I look forward to most at events like PMA Fresh Summit are the opportunities to network with other women in our industry. I know personally that it can be intimidating and uncomfortable to strike up a conversation with a stranger. I also know that I achieve the most personal growth when I push through my fears and embrace some discomfort. I have found so many long-term benefits in making new connections that the initial anxiety of “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” is well worth it.
Hearing other women’s stories about resiliency, growing through adversity, intention, and leading with authenticity has always impacted me. By knowing I’m not alone in my struggles, I can be vulnerable and let others in to help support and inspire me. The momentary discomfort of sharing with real transparency is far overshadowed by the new opportunities I receive. Through networking, I get to build a stronger, more extensive support circle that includes women in all roles, across job family spectrums. They serve as a great reminder of just how expansive our reach and impact is together.
Tips for networking
These tips work for everyone, not just women!
I have found that the best way to build new and lasting connections is to make myself available. I pre-schedule meetings when at all possible. I also always take full advantage of the built-in networking opportunities that a conference provides. My advice: attend all of the events that you can—from learning sessions to social happenings—to maximize the number of people you meet. This is especially true of the women’s networking events. There’s a high chance that other women there are as interested in meeting someone like you as you are interested in meeting someone like them.
I often find I have a few choices while waiting in line for coffee at an event: check my phone, talk to someone I already know, or meet someone new. What’s the scariest one? You know the answer that will help you grow: meet someone new! But how to start? Have some conversation starters ready. It can be as easy as something like asking, “Where are you visiting from?” or “What’s your favorite coffee?” You can be friendly and ask questions about children, vacations, or holidays, depending on the season. Or it can be more specific to business, such as, “What do you work on at XYZ company? How did you get into that?”
Being politely curious and friendly goes a long way. Asking open-ended questions usually gets me the furthest. For example, “What is something exciting that you’re working on right now?” “Where did you get that idea?” “Where did you get that data?” “What do you love about your job?” Attending a conference event offers built-in conversation starters: “What did you think of this speaker?” or “Have you been to this conference before?” You could also ask questions about how they perceive things in our industry, what they’re curious about, what they’re learning about, and what’s going on in their business. Ask about things you don’t know about. Bottom line, ask genuinely curious questions to spark a conversation and start building a connection. Stuck? Think about what you wish someone would ask you.
Another way to develop your network at conferences is to ask colleagues if you can join their meetings. For example, you could shadow a meeting that is being led by one of your senior colleagues. If you’re new to leading meetings, bring an experienced colleague into the meeting and ask him or her to take notes and provide you with feedback. Of course, engaging with all meeting participants will build your network, regardless of whether it’s your meeting or not. Finding similarities with the other women in the meeting is a good way to build a deeper connection.
The thing that so many of us well-intentioned networkers forget is what we do after meeting new people to secure relationships. In a notebook or notes on your phone, take a quick note on 2–3 key points of your conversations. Then, following up should be easy—and you can get creative. Thank them for their time in an email, voicemail, LinkedIn message, or even a video text message. Reach out at regular intervals for advice, their expertise, or to simply continue the dialog after you’ve returned home. This way, you are not reaching out only when you need something. Keep those connections alive by scheduling a quarterly phone call or coffee when you are in their towns. This way, when they need advice or a solution, you will be top of mind for them too.
6 ways to maximize networking opportunities
Whether you’re heading to PMA Fresh Summit or another industry event, having the right mindset is key. Be ready to…
Be purposeful about making meaningful connections with other women in the industry. Cultivate an inclusive environment by engaging with people who you do and you don’t yet know. Go beyond your comfort zone—everyone will have something to offer.
Before you go, set intentions for what you want to achieve at the event. For example, I want to connect with women CFOs to understand their challenges and their solutions. When you return, plan for how you can sustain your new connections.
Think about how you can find other women to create, sponsor, and advocate for collaborative relationships in the industry. Listen closely to others to find similarities—that’s often a great opening point for a conversation and potential relationship.
4. Add value.
It’s a given that you are hoping to get value out of an event. Have you thought about what you can contribute to other women? What value will you provide to other women you meet? How can you be an example of authentic leadership to others?
Actively participate in all of the sessions that you can. Sit up front and make eye contact with the presenters. If something sparks your interest, go and meet the presenters afterwards. That’s why they are there, and they are looking forward to talking with you.
6. Enjoy yourself and have fun.
You don’t need to be an expert to network; listening closely and being genuinely curious will do that for you. Walk into sessions with an open mind, and remember that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Stepping out of your comfort zone is where you grow and learn, and ultimately, find success.
Robinson Fresh is a sponsor of the Center for Growing Talent Women’s Fresh Perspectives leadership breakfast at PMA Fresh Summit. It’s a great way to recognize women in the industry, providing members—both newcomers and seasoned veterans alike—with the opportunity to build meaningful relationships, gain career insights, exchange ideas, and leave feeling revitalized. If you’ll be at this event, please be sure to introduce yourself! As always, our fresh experts are available to connect anytime.