Recently, I attended a three-day in-person conference. Shaking hands, seeing presentations live, enjoying morning coffees face to face with others – it was nothing short of energizing. After going completely virtual for two years, I was again reminded of the massive relationship-building power that in-person events offer.
Yet, these events make up just a fraction of my networking interactions with other leaders. If you’re like me, you’re straddling two worlds: one mostly in the virtual realm, with bursts of in-person activity. Networking in this new hybrid norm takes intention and care if you really want to build long-lasting relationships.
Relationships, connections, networking – this is your absolute best bet for achieving a board seat or making your next career move. However, I see that leaders view networking in one of two ways: they either love it (or at least diligently make the time), or they view it as an unnatural challenge that shouldn’t have to be “the way”. The latter perspective couldn’t be more misaligned with the inner workings of how people (both women and men) really achieve board seats or career opportunities.
If you’re viewing networking as a chore, or not how things should work, reset your perspective: networking is your ticket to advancement, no matter your destination. I promise you that.
Tactics aside, here’s the real secret sauce to making networking work: you must care. You have to care deeply.
Go into every conversation with compassion, curiosity, and kindness. Don’t approach networking with a “what can you do for me” attitude – that mindset will backfire. Come into each conversation with a willingness to listen and to understand what the other needs, what their challenges are, who they are as a person. Hearing what they have to say – paying attention to their world – sets the stage for a longer relationship, even if it’s not obvious at first.
People who are resistant to this idea are often afraid of being disingenuous, or being found out for being false (do they really care)? But if you can be genuine in your curiosity, and open-minded in how you see the value of others, you will find there are lots and lots of people out there to care for, be interested in, and who you can support. When you think about supporting others, you are putting the first deposits in the bank that come back to you as care for you.
Remote is here to stay, but in-person is quickly clawing back into its place, too. Most of us are rooted in a virtual world for the majority of our day, but as my recent conference experience illustrates, we enjoy quality face time when we can get it.
Find what works for you and know there is no requirement – you don’t have to fit any expectation other than your own. Remember that most employees, including founders and executives and people of influence, are still logging in from home and enjoying work-life integration. Show up as you are with the confidence that others are doing the same.
As we re-experience in person, know that it’s okay to feel awkward. We all do. I always do, but recall that’s why everyone centers around the food and bar lines. Shuffle off from that awkward mess, and find the people at tables or in huddles or standing off alone. Spend a little time, and be okay to move on if a connection isn’t happening. And, when a connection sparks, lean in and take the time to genuinely connect.
Regardless of how you connect, I suggest you quickly follow up with any contact (within 24 hours) with an email and a LinkedIn invite to ensure you’ve pulled the relationship into the virtual realm. I also like to remind people how we met. If appropriate, suggest follow ups (a meeting, a proposal, or it may just be staying in touch).
As I write this, I realize I’m not always great at it. I’m slow with the email follow ups, because I’m always days behind on email as it is. I’m great with LinkedIn, but without what’s next that isn’t enough. Where I find I shine is when I actually did connect. I have something to say, to offer in an ongoing way to the conversation we started, to something we share in a common interest, to a suggestion I can make for their challenge or opportunity, or simply because I want to meet again, but this time over a beach walk, or maybe a zoom to see first hand what we are each building.
Planning our days gives us a sense of control, allows room for deep work, and lets us know what’s ahead. But we all know the real world isn’t as structured: meetings run over, kids get sick, families have emergencies. These things pop up and toss our plans in the air.
At the same time, there’s a certain magic in spontaneity (remember hallway conversations and coffee runs?) This is where tools like Slack and “hallway banter” come in – you have a way to send a quick note to check in, collaborate, or even share a meme. I also encourage this type of casual conversation before and after Athena Salons. These off-the-cuff moments are the equivalent of networking gold — it’s real, raw, and relatable.
I’m a big texter, too. Not because I want to intrude in “off” or “unplanned” hours, but because I want to share and communicate in the moment. Texting lets me do that. I can “speak” to people in my network in a natural, fast way. Some of my greatest conversations have sprung from text messages, leading to unscheduled phone conversations. The kind where you can sit down as you wish – cross-legged, legs up, whatever – and really listen to the person on the other end of the phone.
That’s relationship building (and networking) at its core: showing up as you are and listening in the moment.
If you want to establish an ongoing networking or relationship-building cadence, remember to share information that matters. Be meaningful in your interactions. Think about what they need, what they want to hear, what they’ll find useful and interesting.
Otherwise, your outreach becomes noise.
Keeping people in your network informed with thoughtful information is one way to build your network, even if it feels one-sided at times, because you’re feeding your connections with information that matters. This is a great tactic for those with whom you are in the earlier stages of relationship-building.
Hello notes exude warmth and humanity; it’s the email equivalent of an “I’m thinking about you” card. For those in your network who are more challenging to reach (the ones you can never get on the phone!), and for relationships that you’ve cultivated beyond that initial handshake, just reaching out and checking in is fantastic.
You can never go wrong with just saying hi and asking how they are. It can be that simple.
Kids’ names. Surgeries. Big business wins. A high-pressure interview. Take note of these things when you speak to people who are important to you (remember, you have to first care). Follow up to see how they are. How are they recovering? How did the interview go?
This isn’t a sales tactic; none of these strategies are meant to be a sales tactic. This is a relationship tactic. Isn’t this how you’d approach a friend or someone you care about? Wouldn’t you naturally want to check in on those you want to know and understand?
Do that with your network. Care, check in, and share. And watch it blossom.
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