Or even more challenging, trying in vain to forge connections amongst a random group of people in the breakout room of virtual events. It can end up feeling artificial and contrived. Yet everyone talks about the importance of networking and the need to have a strong network, so we must need to put ourselves through these paces, right?
For years I laboured under this misapprehension. I ensured I went to industry conferences, breakfast events, and seminars always with a tidy pile of business cards in hand, hoping that somehow, almost by magic, I might meet someone who could be a helpful contact. Did it work? Sure, I met some interesting people and added a few more contacts to my LinkedIn account, but in truth the time I put into these events very rarely paid great dividends. And that’s because I was going about networking in completely the wrong way.
I hadn’t realised that I needed to be more strategic in how I approached networking, rather than rely on convenience networking. I needed to connect with a broader range of people and be more thoughtful and deliberate about who’s was in my network. I started by asking myself what I was really trying to achieve through networking. It dawned on me I was too consumed in the short term, not appreciating the possibilities that a broad, connected network could yield in future if I approached networking with a sense of giving not taking.
I also needed to get my head around how I could network in a more authentic and enjoyable way in order to be able to commit to it. The moment I grasped this my whole networking experience changed. I started thinking longer term and based my approach on my strengths: building one-on-one relationships. I went from dreading networking and being terrible at it, to finding my groove and becoming really good at it. My network has since helped me in too many ways to count. From getting to work with dream clients, to hiring amazing team members, finding a coveted board position, avoiding making a terrible career mistake, and meeting new friends.
Networking is a long-term investment. You don’t know how and when your time investment will pay off, it might be next week, it might be in three years’ time, and sometimes it can come from the least expected places. But ultimately, strategic networking always pays off.
Who do you need in your network?
By identifying who you need in your network you can drastically cut down the unproductive time you spend at pointless networking events and focus your time and efforts much more wisely.
In my work with thousands of women over the course of my career I’ve been able to identify 8 types of people that you need in your network. I’ve mapped these to the three forms of networking proposed by Professor Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter[i]:
Operational: people who help you do your current job
1. Market / industry experts – people you can reach out to for specific expertise on your industry or functional area. Having a wide range of people is helpful to draw on.
2. Navigators – people who can help you to navigate your role (or organisation, or industry) by sharing information about who’s who and who does what.
Growth: people who help you achieve your professional development
3. Mentor – an experienced person you can learn from and who provides a safe space for testing out ideas and approaches and for giving advice on career related topics.
4. Challengers – people who offer a different perspective and can help challenge your thinking and clarify your perspective. This might be a coach, a colleague or a friend or anyone who thinks out-of-the-box.
5. Accountability partner – someone who will help keep you accountable for achieving your goals. This might be a coach, a manager, a colleague or even a friend.
Strategic: people who help you figure out and achieve future priorities
6. Connectors – people who are well connected, credible, more senior to you, and likely to be able to make meaningful introductions when you need them.
7. Sponsors – people who will raise your profile and visibility and who will champion you to important people.
8. Key bearers – people who can provide you with access to the resources you need, whether that be budget, information or people’s time.
In addition, for your network to be most helpful to you it needs to include diverse perspectives. Make sure the people in your network hail from a variety of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, genders, life and business experiences, and career seniority.
You don’t need to know everyone equally well. Having an inner circle of strong ties – people you trust and can confide in – is important. Yet it turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that weak ties can also be incredibly valuable. In his classic study of relationships, Professor Mark Granovetter of Stanford University found that 84% of people found jobs through weak tie relationships[ii]. That’s because weak ties expose us to new circles: we aren’t swimming in the same ‘pool of information’ as them.
So how can I get started?
Map your existing network against the 8 categories and identify the gaps. Start by mapping the people you know well enough to comfortably have a coffee conversation with. Identify where you have gaps – both in terms of the roles and also your diversity of contacts.
Consider people to fill the gaps. Sending unsolicited emails or messages on LinkedIn are unlikely to get you far. The most effective strategies for building you network are the most personal:
Get introduced by someone – ask your closest contacts who in their network they might introduce you to
Get involved in activities that showcase your abilities – for example, volunteer to lead projects in the workplace or in your professional body, in order to get exposed to people at different levels and for them to get to know you.
Use LinkedIn – identify people of interest, follow them and engage with their posts. Only once you’ve done this for a bit try a personal message inviting them for a virtual coffee. Be sure to explain what value you can offer them in return.
Re-kindle dormant connections – make a list of 3 people you haven’t seen in a while and reach out. Sharing articles, podcasts, or even a message to say you’ve been thinking of them is often enough to start a new conversation.
Build and nurture relationships. Keep in touch at least 2 – 3 times a year and be sure to continue to add value to your connections.
Happy networking! If you’d like to learn more about the Strategic Networking workshop we run as part of our women’s development programmes for organisations, please get in touch.
Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.
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