Where networking is child's play

You make your first friends in the schoolyard. Many women are now finding their first business contacts here, too. By Kathy Harvey
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The Independent Culture
Ask most professional women why they struggle back to work after childbirth and they nearly always mention fear of falling off the job ladder. Yes, earning enough to pay off the mortgage normally comes first, but insecurity about future status in the world of work lurks not far behind.

Tracey Posner realised the future would be uncertain when she left her job as a director with a PR and advertising firm after her first son Joshua, now nine, was born. She planned to build up her own home-based business gradually with new clients. But the contract that gave her business a springboard into a much bigger league came sooner than expected - not via a professional contact, but through another Mum on maternity leave. "I got to know her socially through trips to the local toddlers' gym class our children attended, and she recommended me to the manager of Optiva UK, a firm which makes sonic toothbrushes. It is now one of my best clients, and has been worth around pounds 25,000 a year to my business," Tracey explains.

The network of connections which brought Tracey her first big solo break is not as unlikely as it sounds. As more professional women in their thirties take time off to have babies, the chance of meeting potential business contacts through children has increased. Catherine Fitzsimmons, the manager from Optiva, had no reservations about offering Tracey work after receiving a personal recommendation from a friend. "Women seem to underestimate what they will be talking about while they are on maternity leave and can be their own worst enemies in playing down their expertise. The Mum who introduced me to Tracey, Kate Syms, had watched her organising the local parent-toddler group and was impressed to see how much press attention she got for its work and for its members' magazine. I now do a lot more work through friends' recommendations, and funnily enough the network is mainly female."

It would be unrealistic and embarrassing to loiter round the playgroup in search of your next promotion. However, the break that many women take to look after younger children can give them the breathing space to find a new direction, a luxury not on offer to many men. Jo Stewart was a software engineer with IBM until she moved out to rural Gloucestershire with her husband to run a family-owned hotel and have children. "I kept in touch with colleagues at IBM through Christmas cards, but despite this I was lost to them in all but memory," she says. "I was surprised to find that I felt a huge void after leaving the business world of London to come here. In some sense I felt I had lost a lot of the respect I had worked so hard to build up over the years." When the family hotel was sold after the birth of her third child, Jo began to look round for a new career. She had an idea for putting recipes onto a computerised database for businesses but no experience of the mass catering industry. "I was collecting my son from the local school one rainy afternoon," she recalls, "when I struck up a conversation with another mum, Tricia Bidmead, who had once been in the contract-catering industry before her own family arrived. We got together and between us we have forged a successful business selling recipe software."

The business grew to the point where it has now been sold to Granada, who employ Jo and Tricia to produce the database for them. Jo admits, however, that she would probably never have turned into an entrepreneur unless having children had forced a change of career path. "I have proved that you can start all over again in something new. But although I altered course I never stopped thinking of myself as someone who worked." Many of her contacts were, she says, made while she was chatting with other pregnant women or new mothers.

The need to network is drummed home to everyone setting up their own business, but some experts believe women are better at it than men. Jo Bond of Coutts Consulting, which specialises in helping people to find new careers, says women are often more open-minded about how they will find future work. "When we ask people to make lists of everyone who might form part of their network women are more likely to mention people who might be categorised as less important than themselves, as well as those who are higher up the career ladder. It could be the secretary in their office or the managing director of a local firm. Men tend to focus more on those people they consider to be in positions of influence, and are more likely to compartmentalise their contacts."

Networking is, she says, about gathering information that might be useful to you, and you will get nowhere if you decide in advance how you are going to judge someone. "When I worked for myself I got one of my most lucrative contracts with a large blue-chip company through a lady I knew who was a temporary secretary in the organisation."

The theme is echoed by women like Tracey Posner, who have used their experience as mothers to further their own career. She argues that there is no need to be pushy, or to panic about the future when you are just learning to cope with life with children. "There's nothing wrong in spending some time talking about nappies with other Mums for a while, and your brain certainly won't atrophy just because you do that. At the same time you will gravitate towards other mothers with similar interests. Don't forget that you may not get work through your own immediate contacts, but they might introduce you to someone else. I think many women network unconsciously, but you do have to be sensitive. Being friendly and talking about what interests you is always the best way forward."

The days also seem to be long gone when you had to don a suit and pretend you worked from an office block in order to appear credible. The increase in outsourcing, independent consultancy and laptop computers have all combined to turn home working into a common occurrence. When Tracey met up with Catherine Fitzsimmons to discuss working for Optiva UK she suggested a hotel venue for the meeting. She was told not to bother. "I couldn't see what difference it would make, as long as the conversation was conducted in a professional manner," says Catherine. "It made no odds to me where the meeting took place, and we have been working together successfully ever since." She still meets up with Kate, the mum who introduced her to Tracey Posner in the first place, and who went back to her job as a head hunter for the energy industry after her own maternity leave. Their new mum network is still in place.

There is a downside of course. One mother who decided to remain nameless told how a business contact with a daughter in the same class hardly spoke to her and refused to let their children play together once the business relationship went sour. "We disagreed over how a project was going to proceed and it was fairly easy to end the professional connection. The only problem was meeting each day at the school run. As I had made the contact in a social setting originally it was rather embarrassing to find myself facing an icy glare at 8.45am every morning. On reflection, I may have rushed in too soon to make the most of a personal contact without considering the fall-out."

Perhaps it is no surprise to discover that playground and office politics follow similar lines. But at least it is consoling to know that you don't have to make endless trips back to the office to visit old colleagues in order to give yourself a fighting chance of a better career. Men might even start envying the opportunities that motherhood provides. It's one club they don't have access to.