By Beth Benatti Kennedy, MS, LMFT
When I bring up the subject of networking with my leadership coaching clients, you can probably imagine the reaction; they tell me it feels forced and fake and they hate it. They just want to focus on doing their jobs, but the reality is we need the help of others in our careers, and the broader your network of support, the greater your influence and resilience. What helps my clients move forward is using the word “connecting” instead of “networking”. Rather than the numbers game of networking— how many business cards you can collect or how many social media connections you can make—connecting is about creating and nourishing trusting relationships.
I learned about the value of connection from my dad, who ran his family’s moving business. As a little girl, I accompanied my dad on moving jobs. What I remember most vividly is that he knew everyone’s name. It did not matter if they were a vice president or an elevator operator—he called them by name and always had a positive comment to share. Every time he would leave me by myself at a moving job, someone would come by and say, “Your dad is amazing!”
Despite his example, I didn’t focus on connection in the early years of my career; I thought only top-level career professionals “did networking”. When I began my business as a career coach, though, I learned the importance of networking as a business strategy. It is not easy for most of us, and it takes hard work, but I’ve learned in the past twenty years that connecting with others is a key component for career success, whether you are self-employed or working in an organization.
To foster connection, develop supportive relationships in the three major areas of your life: your organization, your profession/industry, and your personal life. It’s important to be proactive in creating and maintaining these relationships; you don’t want to wait until you’re desperate to make a job change or forced into one by a layoff.
One way to add structure to this process is to create a connection action plan. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet on your computer. List individuals with whom you want to connect and write down how many times you’d like to connect with them during the year and how you’ll connect: meeting for a meal, emailing, or talking on the phone. (Connecting online and by phone is most convenient with our busy schedules, but try to meet face to face occasionally. I have noticed this results in closer, more beneficial relationships.) Leave space to track your connecting actions.
Once a month, check your connection plan and see whom you need to reach out to. We tend to connect with others more often during the holidays, which is when they are already bombarded with cards, emails, and calls. This won’t keep you top of mind with them, and doesn’t develop mutual trust. Following your connection plan keeps you networking in a proactive manner throughout the year rather than only when it is convenient or you need something.
To improve connection, listen
I believe listening is key to deepening connection and building trust. We are often distracted by thinking about our next project or the next item on our to-do list and we don’t really listen to the people with whom we are speaking. For many years, I taught classes in organizations on improving one’s communication and conflict-management skills. I boiled down my tips for being a more effective listener to a three-step process:
- Be attentive to the other person. Are you really listening to them or allowing yourself to be distracted? Even your body language conveys whether or not you are paying attention.
- Suspend judgment. Judging another person gets in the way of developing mutual trust. Be open to another perspective—let the person share their viewpoint and then ask questions. Some of my best learning has happened when I was open to people who had different opinions than mine.
- Pause before speaking. When we disagree with someone, we often begin to think negatively about everything they are saying. Don’t go into rejection mode without pausing to think. You do not need to agree with what someone else says, but you can take it in, think about their perspective, and ask open-ended questions.
Connection is an important ingredient for career success. Think of it as a business competency that you refresh on a regular basis.