It’s that time of year again: kids are back to school and many of us in the working world are slouching off to Autumn business conferences. I can see them piling up from here, unread emails from the myriad ‘women in business’ organisations I signed up to when my company was young and I was profligate with my time.
Now, I’m happy to talk about my business with anyone who’s interested, but ‘networking’? Count me out. Add the prefix ‘speed’ and I break out in hives and leg it. Is that because I’m lousy at it? Probably. But it’s also true that my most valuable business contacts are people I’ve met at events in my own industry, or who I’ve contacted directly to talk about how we might collaborate. Throw in the odd serendipitous encounter at a drinks party, and that’s my Rolodex in a nutshell.
By contrast, standing in the middle of a hotel ballroom sporting a ‘power suit’ and clutching a fistful of business cards with my mouth configured to look like a smile strikes me as a rather haphazard approach to business development.
Frankly, though, the main reason I now spurn these events is their content, and this is where I risk a serious backlash from the sisterhood. Because close to four years of conferences and related activity from organisations concerned with ‘women in business’ have left me wondering just who’s decided what skills we need to develop, and who’s setting the standards by which we judge ourselves. (Yes, I know: ‘judge’ is a naughty word in the sisterhood. We need to ‘support’ each other. Or else.)
Not long ago, one of these national organisations ran an online competition amongst its members for the best logo. Now I’ll admit that when I launched my company I spent a fortune developing my brand. In part, that’s because I love design. But it was mostly because I was entering an extremely conservative sector (classical music) filled with age-old suppliers and wealthy, educated consumers. Conveying sophistication and tradition while signaling that my company is doing something new is no mean feat in a logo that mostly appears as a thumbnail.
As for this competition, the finalists’ logos were on par with the free clip art that comes with most computer operating systems. They were insipid and obvious, but nonetheless had other members gushing about the creative genius behind them, their high praise underscored by smiling emoticons.
Similarly, take a peek at these organisations’ conference agendas and you’ll find they’re crammed with workshops with names like ‘Be Your Own Best Advertising!’ and ‘Grow Your Brand with a Little TLC’, in which TLC doesn’t stand for ‘tender loving care’ but ‘think like a champion.’ Clever.
In short, the bulk of them read like titles lifted from the pop psychology shelf at Waterstone’s and cloaked in the mantle of feminism-lite. You get the word ‘zest’ a lot. As for the speakers, why are they always people like Amanda Beatty from AB Fab Brand Consultants, or Jo Little from Perky & Frothy PR?
Sure, there’s usually a ‘dark horse’ on the panel but even those women embody every cliché in the book. They invariably work in resolutely non-trad industries (mining, for instance, or construction), they often have Northern accents, and they pretty much always wear tight fitting suits and stilettos. Red ones. You know, the kind you wear to kick some ass when an employee posts a picture of a page three model in the canteen.
Now I’d wager that all of us will have to navigate a hostile workplace at some point and it’s nothing to make light of. And naturally, marketing is essential to any business.
But what’s conspicuously absent from these professional pep rallies is much discussion of the nuts and bolts issues that make starting and running a business really tough. There’s plenty of talk about promotion, but little discussion of quantifiable sales. There’s the occasional nod to cash flow but no discussion about meaningful market analysis, bank loans and investment. How about a session on using overseas suppliers, or developing distribution channels?
Indeed, the business writer Vivek Wadhwa is prolific on the challenges women and minorities face in small business, and he’s become a terrific lobbyist and advocate. Follow him on Twitter and he’ll dispense more useful advice in 140 characters than you’ll get from a whole afternoon of ‘wine, nibbles and networking’.
So what topics would I turn up for? Here are a few: ‘Cheque, please. Learning to ask for money (and liking it!)’. Or how about ‘Enough with the Empathy: Managing Staff So You’re Both Happy’. You get the picture.