The Art of Networking (and why CFOs need to know it)

Networking. It’s a concept that’s either exciting or frightening. How we feel about networking depends more on our personality type than our career stage or social standing; extraverts are drawn to it, introverts, not so much.

One thing’s for sure though, networking is an important – if not critical – component of career development and progression. And that includes for CFOs, who aren’t necessarily known for their boisterous personalities.

We spoke to three CFOs in different stages of their career, about how networking helped them on their career journey, and why they still prioritise it today.

Shannon Tatz, Chief Financial Officer, Go1

Shannon Tatz, CFO | Go1

Shannon Tatz has recently stepped into a CFO role for the first time, and credits her strong networking skills for enabling her make the move.

“When I look back at my own career, there’s no way that I’d be in the position I’m in now without networking,” Ms Tatz says.

Ms Tatz’ early career was in SaaS sales, and while she loved being close to the customers and growth drivers of the business, she ultimately wanted to play a bigger part in company strategy.

“I ended up networking within the company to share my career goals and seek mentorship. I built up a cross-functional network within the company that advocated for me when an opportunity came up to move into the Strategy and Finance arm of the company. That really laid the early foundation for my progression to CFO.”

Networking outside of your current organisation is also important, says Ms Tatz.  After moving to private, venture-backed companies, Ms Tatz built up her network within the venture capital and banking communities to stay abreast of up-and-coming companies looking to strengthen and mature their finance capabilities.

“Networking ultimately helped me land my current position at Go1. Go1 is backed by many well-respected VCs, one of which is Madrona. I had the pleasure of working with one of managing directors at Madrona when we were both at previous companies. That relationship and connection provided a lot of mutual comfort among Go1, their investors, and me that this would be a great fit.”

But networking is about more than just career progression, says Ms Tatz, who believes networking helps her do her job more effectively.

“Businesses face many challenges as they grow and scale, but few of those challenges are unique to the business. Being able to hop on the phone or Zoom and chat with someone who’s working through similar issues is incredibly useful. I love learning from the experiences of others and leveraging that knowledge to help move even faster.

Networking is about making connections with other professionals – from colleagues and industry peers to partners, investors, banks, and clients – for building relationships, sharing information, and creating opportunities.

“It’s also about leveraging relationships for personal or professional gain in a way that benefits both parties.

“I’m fortunate that many people I’ve originally met through networking I now count among my closest friends, so I think it’s necessary to approach networking as an opportunity to meet others and be open-minded as to how those relationships develop over time.”

Of course, with the onset of Covid-19, the very essence of networking changed. We could no longer meet for business breakfasts or special events. And so online networking experienced a rise in popularity. Cue celebrations for the introverts who were then in their element.

“Networking has changed dramatically since the pandemic. As travel ceased, they were fewer opportunities to meet peers or partners as major events. Instead, we all had to become more intentional in how we networked, reaching out to people one-on-one or leveraging others for introductions,” says Ms Tatz.

As things have opened back up, Ms Tatz found a renewed appreciation for face-to-face interaction, actively seeking opportunities to get face time with her network and build those bonds. 

“Moving forward, I expect networking to be a hybrid. It’s still great to hop on a Zoom to get some advice or say a quick hello, but it’s even better when you can complement those interactions with an occasional dinner or event where the topics can be more open-ended.”

Darren Silber, Chief Financial Officer, Aruma,

Darren Silber, CFO | Aruma

Creating connections and engaging in genuine personal interaction is an important hallmark of being a CFO, according to Aruma’s CFO, Darren Silber.

“Developing the skill, and indeed a passion, for networking is important early on in one’s career to help build capabilities, such as how to apply a solution or processes from one arena to a divergent one by realising how similar business problems can be,” Mr Silber says.

“This realisation will stand you in good stead before moving into a CFO role.”

Early in his career, while working primarily in an online data insights’ role, Mr Silber was introduced to the owner of a national fashion retailer who operated in bricks and mortar stores.

“The discussion was interesting despite us not reaching any common ground nor agreement on next steps. Six months later I received a call from him to say he was launching on online channel and invited me to develop and lead their Data and Insights team.”

While Mr Silber acknowledges the many benefits of networking, including career advancement, for him, the main benefits are centred around persona development, and the increased opportunity to ask peers questions he may not the answer to.

“A different perspective is always appreciated,” he says.

“Networking allows me to benchmark my organisation, to seek different perspectives that often help me make tough calls and I also benefit from the experience of others.”

Done properly, networking should be a win-win activity, he says.

“There should be a genuine exchange of ideas in an environment where matters can be discussed with both rigour and some fun.

“I find there are few truly secretive issues and I like to focus on open, transparent discussions on topics of interest to me. By delving into my organisation’s challenges, it can often unpack wonderfully valuable insights and ideas from other parties.”  

Of course, times have changed when it comes to how we network. Pre-pandemic, networking might involve a breakfast meeting, an evening event with a guest speaker, or an industry function.

While this was good news for introverts, for Mr Silber, a lack of face-to-face interaction made effective networking outcomes harder to achieve.

“Recently (networking) has shifted to a virtual forum, which I find makes the interaction more difficult albeit if you work hard enough, the outcomes can be just as useful.

“As life returns to ‘normal’, the biggest challenge I find is overcoming complacency and breaking out of the work-from-home mode to get back into making the effort to attend face-to-face meetings.”

A natural communicator, Mr Silber has made a point of proactively reaching out to peers since the onset of his career, usually in related roles and often in competing organisations.

“I network frequently (and) I find it easy. Once I take the first step by usually making a cold call, the person on the other end is just as keen to connect as I am.

“I would encourage others to take that first step – just reach out.”

For those that are uncomfortable initiating contact with people they don’t know, Mr Sibler suggests seeking out introductions from mutual connections.

“Don’t be afraid to ask your CEO or other leadership peers to introduce you to their own network. I also find that if you suggest shouting someone a coffee, that always breaks the ice.”

He also recommends always saying ‘yes’ to meeting new people, even if they do come with a request to “pick your brains”.

“When I have been asked to share my experiences and knowledge with someone, those discussions have often generated an amazing idea that unexpectedly popped up from the other person.

“You also never know how or when one coffee or one virtual conversation might open a new career door.”

Ursula South, Chief Financial Officer, Racing Queensland

Ursula South, CFO | Racing Queensland

While the way we network has undoubtedly changed since the Covid-19 plunged us into a series of lockdowns, Racing Queensland’s CFO, Ursula South says the pandemic has improved our ability to network.

“This is due to the increased effort required to connect with people through a variety of communication channels,” Ms South says.

“It has also opened up a more acceptable mode of communicating for those who prefer not to go to external event settings, or when there are time constraints.”

Regardless of how it’s done, Ms South says networking is a an important component of the CFO role, whose remit covers a wide variety of elements.

“CFOs are often in a position where they need to make decisions about people, commercials, governance etc.  Having a solid pool of networks can be useful if a sounding board is required or a theory needs to be tested,” she says.

“Or simply to provide you with professional reassurance.”

Essentially, Ms South says, your network is your support system, giving you the opportunity to call on past experience or expertise.  To problem solve and share challenges. To better understand the market and/or industry.”

While many people think of networking as attending events, be they virtual or in person, Ms South believes it is simply the art of making connections.

“I define networking as a method of making regular and irregular connections through any medium.”

So while it could be an event – live or virtual – a lunch, or a coffee, it could also be a  Facebook Messenger request, a LinkedIn comment, an email, phone call, even a text message.

For Ms South though, her preferred way to make new contacts is to attend events.

“In particular, I look for opportunities to attend events that are outside of my usual skill set, with a goal to meet and connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet. 

“This includes recruitment companies, industry groups, educational environments, social events – usually charity and sports related.

“I also try to stay in contact with my network connections through social media.  Primarily through LinkedIn, by keeping up with their activity and sharing my own updates.” 

While Ms South finds networking easy due to her natural desire to meet new people, she recommends those struggling with networking identify the method of communication they’re most comfortable with, and use that to make – or keep – contacts.

“Read and follow social channels to find people or networks that interest you.  Ask colleagues and managers for their help to introduce you to people or industries you have an interest in.”

When you do meet someone, make it a habit to go home and add them to your LinkedIn profile, suggests Ms South, and always make a note of who you’ve met and how – so you can refer back to it later.

“Networking is an art.  It will never feel like a chore if you have a natural interest in a topic, subject or person.  Use your interest as a way to channel your time to increase your contacts.”