According to a recent LinkedIn study, women are 28% less likely than men to have a strong network. Considering 85% of career opportunities arise from our connections (and their connections), it’s imperative we put in the work to better this statistic.
Most often, it’s the fear of coming off as transactional or inauthentic that holds us back from branching out professionally, which is a possibility… if you take the wrong approach.
When networking is done properly, it can actually make you (and the people around you) feel supported and valued.
We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines, but we also can’t afford to compromise relationships.
Remember these five things and one simple fact when you commit to networking: the very best networkers come from a place of generosity.
1. Don’t force it
Yes, expanding your network can lead to career advancement, but if you’re only thinking about what you can get out of people in the long-game, you’re never going to truly connect with anyone on a meaningful level where they actually want to vouch for your growth.
Right now, before we go any deeper: ditch any preconceived notions about networking. Simply focus on building authentic relationships.
“Just clicking” with someone—which we value in friendships and relationships—also applies to our professional relationships. If you jive with someone right off the bat and can find common ground for discussion (related to your work or not), then you’re more likely to make a lifelong advocate out of that connection.
On the flipside, pushing for relationships that don’t feel mutual will send a red flag to the other person that your motives are purely transactional. Don’t waste your time or theirs: if the interaction doesn’t feel natural from your end, odds are the other person feels awkward about it, too.
Think about it:
You wouldn’t commit to getting to know someone you didn’t click with unless you wanted something from them. People can sense when they’re being used, and the last thing you want to do is build a reputation in your field for being a schmoozer.
While a large network is something to strive for, don’t compromise on quality for quantity, especially in the early stages of your career.
2. Know what you bring to the table (teach something)
When we think about networking, we most often look to the people with a little more experience than ourselves to help guide us or open doors. This is where a lot of people fear a level of one-sidedness or inauthenticity, because we assume we have nothing to offer these higher-level connections that would be of value to them.
While they might have more experience, don’t assume you’re showing up to the relationship empty-handed.
If you’re in a different department, you might have creative or strategic insights to share. You also have your pre-established network: your peers and team, including your supervisors and skip-levels. Sometimes it’s even as simple as sharing your journey and background with another person that can fuel them with inspiration or direction for their own work.
Invest in knowing the person on a deeper level apart from their seniority, and pinpoint areas of interest or exchange. Every new relationship is a learning experience, simply by proxy of each person’s unique background and bank of knowledge.
Regardless of your seniority, you’re no exception to the rule: you have so much to share and teach others.
3. Keep it timely
Networking requests can feel a little daunting, especially at first contact. If you leave the discussion or the time table open-ended, you risk it becoming awkward or (at worst) exhausting.
This shouldn’t be the case. Networking should actually be fun.
Yes…you read that right: meeting new people and exchanging ideas is exciting, and that’s all networking is.
We recommend setting up meetings for 20-30 minutes, max. This will be more than enough time to get a base-level understanding of one another, but it also doesn’t cut too much into the day if it turns out you don’t click.
Still, no matter the schedule, time is time. Don’t waste the opportunity by coming unprepared or babbling on about yourself. Do some pre-meeting brainstorming on parts of their work you’d like to hear more about, and bring along a contribution that will interest them as well, even if it’s just a fun fact or an article you stumbled upon.
Remember: you’re not trying to sell them or wow them. You’re just finding common ground. If they feel like they are sitting through a Powerpoint presentation or being asked to give one, those 30 minutes will easily feel like a whole hour of extra work.
4. Offer before you ask
We have a saying at The Forem: “If you want people to invest in you, first invest in other people.”
Re: pro-tip #2… you’ve thought about what you have to offer your person, so don’t forget to actually offer it!
Doing the brainstorming and self-affirming ahead of time will help you enter the dialogue with your assets in your front pocket. Then, as you learn more about the other person, you’ll be able to easily offer what might be of interest to them.
It might not be evident at first. Or, the conversation might flow somewhere you weren’t expecting. That’s ok. Remember: authentic relationship building isn’t bound by an agenda.
Allow yourself a few minutes after the meeting to gather your thoughts, impressions, etc. and send a quick follow-up thank you email that relates back to your discussion and affirms what you can offer.
EX: “If you’re still interested in [X], I’m happy to introduce you to the leader I know in [X] department,” etc.
Position yourself as an ongoing resource in your professional relationships, and people will be more apt to do the same for you.
5. If you need something, be clear
Never assume that anything will “happen” from these meetings. Take the experience as it is, and thank the person for their time. As mentioned earlier: if you’re only focused on the transactional appeal of your network, you’re going to miss out on true relationships with far more long-term potential for career advancement.
That said, once you do create connections, a situation may arise where it feels appropriate to enlist someone’s help or even ask for a favor.
Go with your gut. If you feel that your request would be appropriate for the relationship, then by all means, ask. But no matter what: be up front about it.
Nothing is more uncomfortable than a vague plea for help. If you reach out to someone to ask for something, take the extra time to clarify it in your head before writing that email or picking up the phone. Whether you’re on great terms or not, beating around the bush will only waste their time.
Hint: if it doesn’t feel like something you can be brief or transparent about with that person, you might not be on that level with them just yet.
The Bottom Line
Networking is about creating opportunities for others. It’s about generously offering your expertise, insights, support, and ideas. If we all adopt this ideology instead of coming at the task with a one-sided agenda, it becomes far less intimidating; everyone stands to benefit in the end.
Especially for women and minorities: the corporate system isn’t built to levy our merit to the top. We need to create a strong team of advocates to broker introductions, attest to our worth, and inspire us to keep moving. This begins with recognizing your worth for yourself, and extending your hand outside of your circle to help others recognize theirs.
If you want to put your networking skills to the test, we teach effective (and fun!) relationship building in our Level Up cohort. Opportunities to meet talented peers are baked right into the program, and applications are open right here.