Your social network can influence every aspect of your life. From your career to health and happiness, it’s increasingly clear that relationships matter.
So, how can we most effectively build and sustain these powerful relationships?
Networking is more than just showing up
In 2014, Carol Bartz (a former Yahoo CEO) and Lisa Lambert (founder and CEO of UPWARD) co-wrote a piece in Fortune positing that women don’t network enough. While acknowledging that many industries have kept women out of social events via men’s clubs and trips, the article puts much of the onus on women themselves for using social networking sites like Facebook and Pinterest more than professionally oriented social networks, like LinkedIn.
But while we’re all aware that we should be socially active in our industries and wider communities, professional networking can be painfully awkward and often feels unrewarding.
This may be because, in spite of being told that we should network more, there isn’t much explanation around exactly how to go about it. Your networking efforts can and should be much more strategic and nuanced than simply showing up at a social event and exchanging a few business cards. But, let’s face it: That’s exactly what most of us do.
Breaking past the small talk
The first step in building a powerful network is to break past the small talk and get real. Susan Cain, famous for her TED Talk and book (Quiet), recommends networking like an introvert. Even those who identify as extroverts can apply an introvert’s approach to networking for greater success. Cain reminds us that networking is more than just shaking a lot of hands and exchanging business cards. Because introverts have a natural desire to truly connect with people (and just skip the small talk), everyone would be better served by following their lead.
Still, talking about real issues at a networking event can be hard. It won’t happen easily or immediately. To connect with others on a deeper level, you’re going to need to build a foundation, or go with a formal program (more on that later). But this is where the truly rewarding networking really lies.
Empathy, it turns out, is one of the key aspects of networking. But in all the talk around the importance of building up strong professional relationships, very little time is spent on building the empathy piece. As far as we see it, you can break networking down into three level, from least formal to most. And all of them are at their most effective when empathy is fostered.
Level One: Exchanging information
You’re at a conference, a company party, a fundraiser, or a networking event. In one hand, you’ve got one of those clear, plastic tumblers filled with your favorite drink and, in the other, a stack of business cards. You’re ready to start some very informal networking. All you have to do is strike up a conversation.
This is often seen as the hallmark of networking, but it’s also, in many ways, the hardest. It requires you to start conversations with complete strangers, without any structure or opener. Unless you’re a social butterfly with an uncanny ability to come up with fascinating conversation topics under pressure, this method of networking is probably the reason you hate networking.
That’s not to say this method can’t yield fantastic results, because it can. But it requires a lot more motivation than the next two.
If you find these kinds of networking events extremely difficult, there are a few ways to push past the awkward. One way is to be part of the event. Depending on who’s organizing the event, you might be able to volunteer to help with check-in or hand out programs, or some other post that gives you some specific purpose while you interact with attendees.
The best way, according to Susan Cain, is to be a speaker at the event. In the blog post linked above, she says that giving even a short talk creates a ready-made ice breaker that anyone at the event can use to push past the pleasantries. Cain says, “I get to connect with fellow humans across what once would have seemed an impassable chasm of social awkwardness.”
Once you’ve connected with someone, be sure to exchange information so you can follow up. And keep the connection going. Find an article that makes you think of your conversation? Share it. A cool opportunity comes up? Reach out. And then, when you’re ready, take that networking relationship to the next level.
Level Two: Building deeper connections
Maybe she works in a different department, but every time you bump into each other in the kitchen, you have a delightful conversation. Maybe you used to work together and you’ve been meaning to catch up for ages. Maybe you met at a networking event a few months back and keep running into each other.
Whatever the situation is, you have an acquaintance and it’s really time you two got together for coffee, a drink, or lunch. You should have enough already to talk about that the conversation won’t feel too stilted, but just in case, prepare by reading up on any mutual industry news or something that you remember she’s interested in. In other words: do your homework so you have something to fall back on if the conversation falters. That will ease the conversation in the beginning and lead to deeper conversation.
The key to great networking is to share challenges. Vulnerability is how these casual acquaintances can become long-lasting support systems. Everwise’s own Elizabeth Schillo has a great example of this kind of supportive relationship.
“A few years ago, I ran a sales team that was focused on expansion of all new products for the company. But I had very little knowledge of how the products were actually built.” Schillo’s background is in sales and HR, so she knew she could sell the product, but needed a deeper understanding of how they were made as well as a way to get better way to relay feedback she was receiving from customers.
“I reached out one of the only two female product officers, and asked if she would start meeting with me once a month.” What started as very formal, informational meetings became a strong partnership that continues today. The two had knowledge in very different areas, so when they let their guards down and shared their challenges and questions with each other, they were able to guide each other. “It took a lot of courage for me to speak up and ask for help.” Schillo says, “ I think that’s something that we don’t encourage enough in the workplace.”
Level Three: Sustaining connections through a formal program
Formal programs, like EverwiseWomen, can provide a more direct and structured kind of professional support that the other two approaches just can’t match. Of course, there are drawbacks with this one too: you have to find a program and get in, for starters. Because good programs tend to be popular, space is often limited and it can take awhile to climb the waitlist. But once you do, the benefits are yours for the taking.
Formal programs allow like-minded professionals who might never otherwise meet the chance to connect, share experiences and problem solve together. Many women in these programs face similar challenges and help each other work through them. Because women and people of color are less likely to have powerful workplace relationships (like mentors and sponsors), this is especially important.
I spoke to Courtney Emerson, an advisor for EverwiseWomen and the co-founder and COO of All in Together, about how the EverwiseWomen program uses empathy to create strong bonds and build tangible benefits for the participants.
The formality of it, she says, is a huge benefit. “Networking can a be a lot like going to gym. Technically, we all have the information we need to get in shape or build a network, but unless we have someone holding us accountable it tends to fall to the wayside. We’re busy. We have professional lives, we have personal lives. But if you have a trainer waiting for you at the gym at 7am, you’re more likely to get yourself there.”
Signing up for a formal program makes it harder to flake out and cheat yourself in the long run. You have a set time and place and people are counting on you. You may have even invested money into the program.
Like Susan Cain, Emerson was also quick to point out that vulnerability plays a critical part in creating lasting and successful connection. But because a formal networking or development program creates shared norms and expectations, people feel more comfortable being vulnerable because it’s core part of the program process.
EverwiseWomen peer groups begin by asking each participant to answer questions designed to bring participants to that vulnerable place and help them clear the awkward hurdles of more informal networking. This allows them to fast-forward to the point where they’re discussing their biggest challenges and building lasting support systems. And because everyone in the room is required to answer the same questions, the awkwardness is a non-issue. None of the participants posed these personal questions or overshared at inopportune moment, they’re just following the rules. Yet, they get all the benefits that come from that vulnerability.
“Immediately people started talking openly,” says Emerson, thinking back on her first experience at the workshop. “It totally changed our ability to connect with each other. I walked away from our 90-minute conversation knowing more about these people I had just met than I knew about coworkers I’d sat next to for years.”
Empathy’s power is that is can take the most personal feelings and experiences and show us that they’re actually universal. Effective networking builds off this power, giving you many different people who can help you delve into challenges and (hopefully) find new, career-altering insights.