Recently I was asked to speak to the women’s employee resource group of one of our customers about networking. The organizer shared that many women are struggling with just how to develop their network, particularly now that so much has moved online. While I don’t consider myself an expert on the topic, there is a running joke at Team WeSpire about the “6 Degrees of Susan.” I admittedly know a lot of people.
First some basic statistics on why networks matter. Research shows that 70% of jobs are never posted and 85% are filled through networking. In addition to finding jobs, networking is one of the most important ways to find and keep customers and for business owners to raise capital. Finally, networking contributes to health and wellbeing. People with strong professional networks have less anxiety and depression and are more resilient.
However building and maintaining a network requires effort. Only 48% of people say they consistently keep in touch with their network. 25% admit to not networking at all. The research also shows that women, for a wide variety of reasons including structural exclusion and personal hesitancy, have less effective networks than men.
So as I thought about what advice to offer, I realized that it was likely to be unconventional. Sure, I could offer frameworks for thinking about different outlets to build your network, good habits for LinkedIn, and recommendations for how to handle virtual events. But I firmly believe that my network is what it is because I never once approached it as “let’s go build my network.” My network grew because I genuinely enjoy getting to know people and work hard to stay in touch with them.
So my advice for building a network had just three recommendations.
- Engage Authentically and Inclusively
Engage people with genuine curiosity and interest in them and how they think. Key to this is asking questions and learning about them and from them. What did they think of the prior speaker? How did they approach that project that was so successful? What’s their favorite ice cream flavor?
This is particularly true in groups. Very few people, even raging extroverts, enjoy being in a room where they don’t know people well. It is just hard and awkward. So most people are thoroughly relieved if someone starts talking to them. So if you see your reason for initiating a conversation as relieving mutual suffering, with the upside of meeting someone awesome, it makes it way easier to talk to people.
- Give and Seek Help
I like helping and connecting people — and often find myself listening for who I could connect someone with. Adam Grant’s book Give and Take has fascinating research into the importance of giving to others. What I’ve also gotten a lot better at is seeking help from my network. People can’t read your mind, but most people like helping others too. So if you put what you need out there, whether in one on one conversations or more broadly like LinkedIn posts, it activates people on your behalf.
- Express Gratitude
Simple thank yous are rarer than you realize. When you go out of your way to reach out to someone and thank them for something they did, even if it wasn’t directly for you, people remember. One highly effective habit is to have a daily or weekly cadence for sending a note to someone in your network to check in, and using the opportunity to express gratitude for something they did or for your relationship in general.
Ultimately my advice for building a network is to not focus on building a network. Give yourself opportunities to meet people by initiating or joining things that connect you to other humans. Show up, then focus on authentically connecting with that person or people. When you find people you click with, work hard to stay in touch. In large part because your life, and theirs, will be better because you did.
Quote of the Week: “The single greatest ‘people skill’ is a highly developed and authentic interest in the other person.”