A kick up the backside, a reality check, a nudge in the right direction. This is what your network can give you. It's your most valuable career asset, yet one that is often neglected. If you cringe at the thought of networking, here's my take on how to redefine what it means to you.
Emily* is a client of mine. She spent years in a job that brought her professional success, money and status. Yet, as it's the case with many of my clients, she has fallen out of love with it a while ago.
In our first session, I asked about her network. She cringed – it wasn’t where she wanted the conversation to go. On the face of it, the main issue was time. As a busy mother in a full time job, where would she find the hours?
But, as we explored more, the real reason was that she despised networking. Her definition of it included approaching strangers at industry events. Engaging in meaningless chit chat with aforementioned strangers. Seeking ways to use them and trade favours.
What comes to your mind for you when someone mentions the n-word to you?
Emily's perception of it is not unusual.
Over the years of working in a "Big 4" firm and moderating the performance of managers, the networks they created was one of the key differentiators in performance reviews.
But the discomfort that came with building and maintaining their networks was a big obstacle for many. Used to focussing on day to day technical objectives, these more relational tasks felt awkward and didn't seem like "real work". Even though great networks was exactly what they needed to take their careers to the next level.
And just like Emily, they didn't see where they would find the time.
Why should you care to make the time?
Your network is made up of personal contacts who can provide support, feedback and information.
These are people who help you keep up with your industry, let you know if your new career idea has legs, brainstorm with you, or refer you. They will also give you the much needed external perspective if you've worked with the same group of people for years.
But it's particularly important when you're thinking of a major job change.
This is because a successful career shift rarely happens by replying to a job ad, and is exactly what Emily was discovering.
First of all, after many years in her job, she had a limited idea of what other companies were actually like. Internet research only showed a tip of the iceberg of what she wanted to find out. She needed insights beyond what employer branding campaigns were keen to show her.
Second of all, she didn't want an equivalent of her job somewhere else, which made things tricky. Browsing ads made her feel like giving up. When a job caught her attention, it seemed unlikely she'd get an interview since it asked for years of experience in a similar position.
The only way it was possible for her to connect the dots was to talk to a human. In other words - to network.
She spoke to a former colleague who now works in an industry that she considered transitioning into. They met for coffee and enjoyed reconnecting.
That person introduced her to a friend who runs a headhunting business and was able to clear more doubts. He pointed her to other resources, and connected her with someone at one of the companies of interest to Emily.
Reflecting upon it in our coaching session, Emily said it was all too pleasant to call it networking.
The point behind Emily's story may be blatantly obvious. Yes, we need our networks. But common sense doesn't come with common practice.
I like what Herminia Ibarra, a professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD said: “Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority”.
Motivated to boost your networking efforts this year?
Here are 3 ideas that will take the pain out of it:
1. Find a way that works for you
Here's a liberating thought: forget networking events if they're not your thing.
The best networking is when you keep in touch with those already around you. People in different departments, ex colleagues, former clients, neighbours. And a friend might introduce you to a friend.
What is the version of keeping in touch with people that works for you? One to one is great, but you can get creative:
- I used to run industry surveys. They gave me an excuse to meet one on one with interesting people in my market. It opened many doors that might have otherwise be harder to open.
- Do what you're passionate about, but include more people from your network. Charity events, sport gathering, organic vegetable exchanges, whatever takes your fancy.
- A former colleague of mine, a passionate foodie, distributes organic olive oil that his family imports from Italy. Unlikely intended this way, but those regular interactions about something not work related really expanded his network. It worked like a charm with his personality.
2. Get better at conversation
Worried about awkward silence? One thing that great networkers have in common is the skill of conversation. They make it simple. Rather than pushing their agenda, they listen and express authentic interest in what the person in front of them has to say. Such a magical, yet underrated combination.
I agree with Stephen R. Covey when he said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
In a world where most conversations follow this frustrating pattern, finding someone different is so refreshing. You're guaranteed to leave a positive lasting impression.
3. Make it into a habit
To create a thriving network, make keeping in touch with people outside of obvious work context a regular habit. It only takes a few minutes to reach out to one person a week.
Dropping a note to someone when they naturally pop in your head doesn't need to be laborious. LinkedIn is a great way to learn what people are up to, and start a conversation. But for your network to truly flourish, you need to take it offline.
Make networking less about meeting strangers and more about reaching out to people you already know.
To sum things up…
If you were to choose one thing to boost your career this year, I would recommend expanding and nourishing your network. In a way that feels right to you.
Whether you’re looking to change jobs or progress your career where you are now, it can expose you to insights and opportunities that you can't yet know exist.
Most of them unavailable through a Google search.
*Emily is not her real name. I disguise the identity of clients whose stories feature in my articles.