We all know that we should be networking; even those of us who hate the very idea are at least vaguely aware that there’s some established benefit to meeting other people in our fields, people who might introduce us to great opportunities down the line. And while networking is a powerful force for everyone, women, in particular, may find that the earlier they begin actively networking, the better.
Networking is especially critical for women
Courtney Emerson, an advisor for EverwiseWomen and COO of All in Together, says that frequently when women are in the earlier stages of their career, networking doesn’t feel as important. While women often make up about half of the entry-level workforce, the numbers begin to dwindle in the higher rungs of the corporate ladder.
“Especially as women get to that senior director level,” Emerson says. “They look around and all of a sudden they’re one of the only women at that level. And because of all the different diversity challenges that we know about (like unconscious bias) women don’t always have great resources or networks internally to talk about the challenges that they’re facing.”
That’s where building up an external network can create a solid foundation of support as you grow into your career. Just because you might not feel the need now, doesn’t mean you won’t ever. In fact, as a 2005 study of 225 managers across the US found that for many, the higher they climb, regardless of gender, the less they get meaningful feedback and support while feeling increasing pressure to deliver better and better results.
Even without the reality of issues around diversity, connecting with people outside your company and outside your comfort zone is critical for success.
Diversity in networking
One of the biggest predictors of career success is not just connecting with your peers, but connecting with a wide and diverse group of people. Diverse professional networks build better careers. On the surface that sounds great, right? Many of us like to think of ourselves as open-minded and hungry to meet lots of different people with interesting ideas. Unfortunately, the data tells a different story.
Humans tend to build relationships with people they perceive as similar — In friendships, marriages, and business partnerships, people gravitate towards others of the same race, age, political beliefs, and socioeconomic background.
It’s well established that diverse teams are more innovative and better problems solvers than homogenous teams, which leads to higher profits. Now it appears the benefits of seeking out more diverse relationships in every part of your life, however counter-instinctive, is the best thing you can do for yourself.
It’s a natural human instinct to seek out people you think are like yourself. But when we do force ourselves to reach beyond the constraints of instinctual biases and really embrace a diverse social and professional network, that’s where the magic happens.
Networking is boring and awkward
The other problem you’re likely to run into again and again as you try to build up a wide, diverse professional network is that the act itself of networking can — uh — feel less than natural.
Last year, in an HBR article, leadership consultant, Greg McKeown, argued that 99% of networking is a waste of time. His take is that most of us spend a lot of time standing around at networking events, worrying about making a great impression, when we should just go out with interesting people in a social setting and let the career conversations happen naturally. “The key to networking is to stop networking,” he says. And then, quoting networking virtuoso, Richard Stromback, he points out that people in business “are hungry for real conversations and real relationships.”
Networking shouldn’t be about you. When you approach networking as a selfish act, looking to see what everyone in the room can do for you and your career, you’re not likely to see much of a benefit. But when you approach networking as a collaborative way to do something important together, you’re more likely to see the rewards.
Your professional network is a team, whether you realize it or not. “The power of networking is to create collective action,” Emerson says. “To have a bigger impact than just you alone could have. We are way more powerful together than we are on our own. Person-to-person connection can be movement building.”
And speaking of person-to-person…
Technology can only do so much
Social networks, video calls, and email are fantastic ways to organize and communicate with people. In fact, 37% percent of workers telecommute to some degree, and for many of us the many technological tools out there provide more flexibility and a healthier work/life balance. But when it comes to networking, the really good connecting happens in person. This probably doesn’t surprise you.
Most of us are well aware that social media and digital connections are only a supplementary tool, something that can’t replace, in-person interaction. As much as alarmist articles clamor on about the death of human interaction, claiming that all young professionals want to do these days is text you from a few feet away and call into meetings, the reality is that most of us value our IRL conversations. Regardless of generation or industry, most professionals prefer to meet face-to-face.
A recent piece in Quartz uses a quote from Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, to build on the idea that great networking is done in person: “Over time and far from home, I discovered something I might never otherwise have learned: people in the same room understand and empathize with each other in a way that isn’t possible on the page or screen.”
Emerson agrees and adds, “One of the things we also know is that when people learn with other people, you actually learn more because you absorb knowledge more quickly. It increases engagement and playfulness. It increases our resilience when we fail, and it also expands our action repertoire.”
And there’s a good deal of research to back this up the claim that collaborative learning is more effective than solitary learning. One of the reasons many teachers and professors frequently ask classes to break up into groups is that this type of learning has been proven to increase participation, more innovative ideas, and increases knowledge retention long after the lesson is over.
And that last piece, the retention is important. We’re all tired of spending the time and energy on networking events that don’t yield significant results in the long term. When you attend the next networking event, approach it with a desire to learn as much as possible, to discuss big topics with a wide variety of people, and listen to what they have to say.
You might not immediately see a drastic benefit, but the relationships you create when you reach beyond your immediate network can have a big impact as you build your career. Remember that you’ll be in the workforce for a long time, your relationships will have effect for decades to come.