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As the nepotism debate rages (and the rightful fight to counter it continues), what stays valid is the fact that connections (and networking) matter.
It doesn’t have to be highly coveted worlds or roles. Even in the most mundane scenarios, from tapping into a hidden job market to advancing in a career, from starting a business to selling to new customers – the importance of knowing the right folks and having meaningful, respectful, mutually beneficial relationships with them matters almost as much, if not more, than skills.
This is not debatable. Even outside of formal employment, connections are important for ease in life.
Yes, in an ideal world equalized for all and with enough opportunities for all, talent and hard work would secure advancement opportunities. But until we make the world all fair and sparkly, for those born into (or thrown into) a universe unknown, mastering networking is the difference between frustrations, thwarted ambitions, and getting throttled despite potential, vs. thriving.
Now, two things first.
Thriving v/s Succeeding
One: thriving doesn’t have to be measurable by a success metric. That’s why I use ‘thriving’ here, not ‘succeeding’.
Thriving, very simply is about being fulfilled where we are. How we feel about the environment around us and what efforts we are continuously able to make towards our ambition(s) – whatever they might be.
Connections v/s Connecting
Second: noting the difference between having ‘connections’ and ‘connecting’ is important. The former comes with a negative connotation (although its benefits are undeniable). But more importantly, we can’t do anything about it if we are born without. Connecting – on the other hand, gives fulfilment beyond the intention that might have been the driver, and also, is something most of us can very much do.
With that, let me start this humble guide here with re-framing networking. Yes, networking very much is creating, maintaining, and optimising connections and yes, it does come with an ‘intention’. But reframing it to navigate gender and cultural reservations towards it is critical for success. So, let’s think of networking as creating mutually beneficial connections that we can enjoy, learn from, and contribute to.
Next, I will break this into three groups:
Before diving in, let me add that I will address this piece primarily towards women and with a lens of Indian culture. But based on my years of teaching and mentoring in multiple nations, I believe the challenges to be quite universal. The gender/cultural traits that we identify to be limiting us are more conditioning than what we are born into or as. Also, this article is not going to be able to deep dive into and will merely touch the surface. But I am happy to follow-up, especially for women, to help balance the numbers in fields that are hard for women to break into.
All through my corporate career in the US, and even before that, I have been hearing that women are especially bad at networking.
I struggle with accepting this, because, recollecting back to my childhood – what I remember is very different. My mother and many women I know were extremely resourceful in getting what they needed through building connections. From movie tickets of sold-out movies to last-minute help for an electrical problem, they know whom to go talk to and how to make it happen. My mother-in-law is the same.
Similarly, there is research showing that women are better in managing conflict and diplomacy (and are often labeled ‘manipulative’) for the same. What it is really, is that women can get difficult things agreed upon without the need for force.
So women can’t be bad at networking. Travelling to villages for some of my projects, I repeatedly witnessed women being more resourceful (they had to be, in the absence of the men who were under the influence most of the time) and most of their resourcefulness comes from the connections they have been able to create.
Certain narratives on our culture: eastern cultures are less forthcoming in being able to ask – can’t be true either. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in India (or Japan for example), can vouch on the magic of connections/relationships on how things often get done.
So, in my opinion, what might be limiting is a twofold mind block.
One: networking/forming connections with a predetermined intention (vs. asking someone we already have a relationship with for something we know they can provide) sounds selfish. More importantly, it puts a lot of folks in the mode of ‘what if they say no’ and ‘if they do, it must be personal’. The later happens because of the mostly imagined second mind block. The one of power imbalance. ‘I know what he/she can give me, but I don’t have anything to offer in return.’
For help with this, I will be making two counterpoints. One: re-frame your thoughts through conscious effort that finding and making connections for particular goals is not a selfish act as long as you choose not to be selfish with it. Meaning, treat the other person and his/her time with respect, treat their needs with respect, and payback or pay it forward when the opportunity arises.
An easy trick for this, especially for women (who I found have a much easier time asking for one kind of assistance – say for her child’s education, or for home maintenance, or office time swap for family events – vs. another: help me find someone who can sponsor me for a promotion or teach me a certain skill or can review my book or publish my article/project) is to re-frame the ask to be for a greater good.
There is nothing wrong in wanting something just for yourself. But we are taught that it is. So, try asking for an opportunity because that will allow you to do a certain kind of work (which will serve people/the society/your team/your company… better). Practice re-framing the reasons in your mind if being perceived as selfish bothers you and you will start the conversation from a place of peace, not hesitation.
Second, we need to remember that why a person might say no is not personal in most cases. It might have nothing to do with us – with us not being good enough or having no counter value to offer. Practice hearing no and not taking it personally. If you have approached networking as connecting with people, you are automatically entering the space with long-term intention (even if you have a shorter-term or immediate goal). So, in that case, there will always be a time when you will be able to return the favor, no matter who you are. I can give countless examples and tools but will probably need to do so in a follow-up. Here, in the third segment, I will elaborate on some ways of reciprocation which might not be obvious.
This is fairly simple because a lot is available on the internet on how-to. What is important is having a framework for what are the key things to learn/find tools for.
One, networking needs to be intentional
Meaning, since we all have limited time and number of years in life, although there is undeniable value in just knowing a lot of people (the bigger your network – higher the human capital power and the probability of benefit), for practical purposes, we need to be intentional in ‘intentional’ networking. If my new neighbor is a VP at the start-up I want a job in, great. If not, I need a strategy.
A great and simple tool for this is network mapping. I have seen this in many forms in many places, but in most simple form its writing down in a paper what our goals are, and who we currently know (or need to know) is connected to that goal. Or is connected to a path to that goal.
Then, we assess if we have the connections at the right level of influence. Meaning, knowing many first-year interns in a company is great, but if we don’t know anyone higher up but want a higher job, we need to identify that as a gap. Several network mapping tools and tips can be found online, as well as guidance on how to think about who you want to connect to. Some social media outlets like LinkedIn and Facebook are excellent tools in finding primary and secondary connections. Tips on how to do so can be searched and found online.
Tools on approaching come next
What are some good approaches that are known to work online, via email, or in-person? Social media has made finding people quite easy, but organically meeting someone still has it’s benefits. So we need to look up and prepare an appropriate introduction (un-flatteringly called the elevator pitch or pitch but think of it as not what you have to gurgle out in one min, but what the other person should know about you to make you an interesting and enjoyable long term connection) and good questions to ask when reaching out via email or cold call.
Connecting between networks
When I was trying to start writing (non-technical writing that is), having done only science and technology and knowing no one who was ‘literary’ or in a related discipline was disappointing. Even if I did reach out and find people who would like to talk to me, what could I possibly offer in exchange? A processor? Along with tech, I did, however, also know people from opening my non-profit and volunteering while at school. Building my network in writing/publication/media (both in India and in the US) was made easier therefore by the multiplier effect.
People we know might seem to be from fields or places quite different. But staying at it and doing some mapping from time to time will expose valuable inter-connections. Most importantly, in the give and get (and that’s what successful connections need to be) the power of tapping into a separate network is invaluable and giving is often more fulfilling and easier.
I had a great mentor (who is now a close friend), whom I had nothing apparent to offer when we had just met. She – an established media person – what use could I be to her? – while her offerings to me were limitless. But she has a son who was trying to get a technical internship, and that too in the field of sustainability (something I had worked on through my non-profit engagements). I was able to help her son. Now, how do you get to know this about someone? Just like you would know this about your friends. Take a genuine interest in the connections you pursue – take time to get to know them – and take time to care.
No gift is too small. I was taught in one mentoring class to just ask. What can I do for you? Can I offer some child-sitting time? My mother in law successfully gets people concert passes. Now, off-course, in a professional setting, be mindful of not crossing the fine line of ‘bribery’. But common sense is not too hard, and as long as what you are getting in return is fair (read ethical/not illegal) and well-earned, you should be fine.
If we have done our mindset work and are ready to take a chance on hearing a no. Be honest. I have reached out to people on LinkedIn for example and have said that this is what I need help with, I don’t necessarily have anything to offer, but I will help out in whatever way possible if they are ever on the other side. I also give them a way to opt-out (again, treat them like you would like to be treated). I tell them that if they don’t/can’t respond, I will understand.
It’s a long-term relation, not a short-term result
So, respect them and value them even if you find out that they are not going to be helpful today. Be judicious on how you budget your time but treat your connections as real humans you are happy and proud to know, and you will be happier yourself. Undeniably, that’s a delicate balance but intention goes a long way even when time and priorities are not on our side. Also, if the work of mapping, targeting, and time to time re-evaluating is done well, the probability of this happening is less. As aforementioned, there is value in having a large, organic network. So, keeping in touch and genuinely caring, in whatever way possible, is not just the right thing to do, it’s also judicious.
Moral and summary of this all? All of us have something to offer, all of us need help. Taking the mind blocks and connotations out of networking, and approaching it with positivism instead, will help us reach our betterment goals, and eventually, will make the world a better and connected place.
Image credits Jacob Lund via Canva Pro
Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...
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