“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African Proverb)
In the era of social media, it can be effortless to sell the image of becoming a self-made business leader. That illusion leaves the greater public with one question: How? How do I create the same level of success for myself?
The short answer: there is no fast fix to building your career path; it takes hard work and leveraging relationships. In other words, networking is critical.
For some, networking can seem intimidating, difficult and uncomfortable. It is no small feat to find individuals who share common professional interests and are willing to give legitimate support in your goal-getting.
If you struggle with building professional relationships, then it is likely that networking as you know it, is characterized by:
- Exchanging authenticity for an opportunity
- Navigating intimidating conversations with people who have the power to promote you
- Making and hearing empty promises as a formal courtesy to someone within your industry
- Exchanging favors and striving for a come-up.
If this resonates with you, then you will need to reimagine networking and change the narrative.
Forget everything that you thought you knew about networking, at least for now.
In our last Mentor Moment, Susan Chapman-Hughes (C Suite Leader and Independent Board Director) shared some insight into networking that cannot be over-emphasized. “I would encourage you to just approach it as a relationship-building opportunity, and not a professional one. Note: I didn't say, ‘professional relationship-building opportunity.’ I just said, 'relationship-building opportunity,” said Chapman-Hughes.
Susan is not alone in her thinking. Luminary’s Founder, Cate Luzio recently hosted Kristi Reinholz (Chief Human Resources Officers at Unilever North America) in our Monthly Speaker Series and within the first few minutes, the conversation turned to the power of your network and the requisite skills for business and navigating the workplace was building the foundation of relationships - not exchanging favors.
“The only thing people will ever remember about you is how you treated them. They're never going to remember, did you go to a meeting, did you show up at this event. They're going to remember how you treated them and how they impacted your life.” - Kristi Reinholz, Chief Human Resources Officers at Unilever North America
In a separate Speaker Series this month with Ita Ekpoudom, Partner at GingerBread Capital, and Akila Raman, Chief Operating Officer of the Investment Banking Division at Goldman Sachs, the three leaders further modeled and shared stories and examples of organic networking. And how impactful their networks have been in navigating their careers.
If you are at the point where you realize that there is no way that you can truly progress solely on your own, then you are already on the right path. What you should be looking for is authenticity when it comes to building professional relationships and the notion that it is a two-way street.
As we reflected on a few of this month’s past sessions, we’re providing a few bits of advice to start growing the kind of network that you can not only turn to, but also help.
#1 Develop your security.
We know there is a lot about networking that is intimidating. ‘What should I say? What if they don't like me? How will I keep their attention?’ The pressure to perform when it comes to business relationships can bring about severe cases of social paralysis. Insecurity can set in at any moment. When it does, it perhaps can be attributed to what you think you lack and what you think you need to thrive in the environment.
Networking might seem enjoyable for the extroverted super-connector but extremely uncomfortable for the introverted. Everyone knows someone social and likable, willing to extend a hand and introduce themselves at the top of any moment. But what if you’re not that person? There are several ways to step out of your comfort zone and to create real connections.
‘The power of silence’ as described by Reinholz can be a very effective tool. “Silence does not mean that you are ineffective. It does not mean that you are a better or worse leader. It means that you have an impact in the moments that you want to make them. And, you can always ask for help. Somebody is willing to help you and even if you are the most introverted, quiet person, there is somebody around you that you can [share ideas with] and they can be a loud voice for you… It doesn’t matter your style. Think about who you need and what you need and who you can trust to help you. What you’re good at, somebody needs.”
In Raman’s session she shared that, “Oftentimes, especially when you’re a junior person or just starting in your career, it’s very easy to get intimidated [concerning those who are more senior] very quickly, and I think you sell yourself short. You have an experience that they don’t have. So, definitionally, you have an experience that is of value to the other person.”
The more secure you become in your own experience and the value you can add, both in what you excel at and also where you lack, the more you can focus on building the connectivity of others and finding a place to meet in the middle.
#2 Determine what you are looking for in relationships
And we mean all relationships, not just business relationships.
Both Ekpoudom and Raman are each other’s backboards when it comes to explaining what you can and should look for in relationships that translate well into networking. Raman shared emphatically, “I can find something in common with everyone I’ve ever come in contact with. All you have to do is look.” Raman added, “We might look completely different. We might come from different places, but there’s something here that can build a bond.” You have to continue to search and find that one piece of information to connect.
With regards to relationship building and mentorship, many are focused solely on the senior mentor or sponsor who can help. While important and critical to your networking, peer mentorship is commonly overlooked.
Raman mentioned, “On a very regular basis, young men and women come into my office and say, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ I’m not discrediting that ask. It is incredibly important, but I think people discount the value of peer mentorships. The small moments are when we grow the most, and my peer network has done that for me, and they’ve grown with me. We rely on each other and learn from one another on a regular basis.’ It’s important to remember that you can build and learn from relationships up, down and sideways.
Overlooking peers to focus solely on developing influence with senior management and executive leaders might impact a new professional’s networking potential. Why? One simple reason: your peers today become CEOs and executive leaders tomorrow. Growing together, learning from each other, and investing in your peer network creates strength in numbers for rooms that you may find yourself in now and in the future.
According to many experts and leaders like Reinholz, Raman and Ekpoudom, if someone with valuable experience invites you to an opportunity, say, yes and then figure out schedules later. It communicates their importance to you and holds you accountable for being present and showing up to nurture the connection.
As a final encouragement to get out there and find what you’re looking for in a network, Luzio shared her perspective as a seasoned professional who was building a brand new network, outside of the banking world where she had worked for almost twenty years, from scratch in her early forties. “You can’t be afraid to reach out. You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there. The worst that someone can say is, “no” - and it’s not the end of the world. There are so many incredible connections to be made and to be nurtured. You have to do the work.”
#3 Prepare for more acts of generosity.
Reinholz shared quite a bit around the concept of generosity when it comes to networking and truly paying it forward. There is a profound difference between transactional relationships and generosity in relationships. “The only thing people will remember about you is how you treated them… Each of us can make our world better by making that connection and by helping the next person in front of you or behind you because you don’t know what their circumstance is. That one act could change their life or their career,” said Reinholz. And yes, there will be times where necessary boundaries will require that you say, “no”, but building relationships of any kind requires you to be available, responsive, and mentally present. Perhaps it’s a no right now, but maybe for another time.
Reinholz further shared, “I worked for many leaders. Each one of them had a way of giving to their community, giving to their teams and demonstrating “servant leadership” - serving their teams and people in a way that made them supremely successful and made themselves successful, because they were all focused on the common goal.” Paying it forward, regularly championing others who do great work, giving time and recognition are all acts of generosity in networking. They are like seeds poured out aimlessly which, once buried well into good ground, could sprout at any given place at any given moment.
Generosity must be a personal principle and not a matter of eventual exchange. Generosity in this way not only frees you from the preoccupation of wondering who might reciprocate, but also dismantles a competitive culture in business. And it helps to level the playing field.
#4 Learn reciprocity. Accept reciprocity. Don’t demand reciprocity.
In some approaches to networking, one might try to identify someone who would fit into their vision for a network and forge relationships with people who appear to be potentially helpful for the future. This type of networking leverages a “what’s in it for me” perspective.
Networking, relationship building, whichever term you prefer, requires time, investment and the ability to see beyond the transaction. Approaching networking as a two-way street guarantees that the relationship will be valued by both parties. Even in environments that are not particularly social, there is an opportunity to build authentic connection. There is space to acquire a genuine interest in what makes people who they are. Raman further encourages the practice of asking people what they like and even asking for advice, and building relationships around the other person’s interests, and taking the time to learn more.
Networking takes time. Approach each relationship openly and generously, knowing that you will eventually come across people who are willing to reciprocate and build the relationship with you. As Raman says, “build a fortress around you. It doesn’t happen overnight.’
Ultimately, the more you work at building your network, the more you will find support, opportunities to learn, and an ability to interpret and respond to incidents or feedback that come from outside of the safe spaces that you have cultivated within your network. Let it happen and watch your network grow.