The pandemic accelerated change and, with it, the need for executives to rethink how they nurture their careers in a new business environment where agile, virtually connected, and tech-driven skills are essential to thrive as a leader. What worked 2-5 years ago is no longer optimal for how businesses and people work together. Subsequently, the need for executives to rethink how they nurture their network is paramount.
In a recent community Zoom with execs, the topic of online networking got emotional. The focus on channels and content switched to how people were treating people networking online. We decided, as leaders do, to share our knowledge to help execs get the most value out of their networking. A recent Fast Company article titled "How to Keep Your Professional Network Active During the Pandemic," authored by Gwen Moran, states professional networks can be critically important to everything from professional growth to job security.
So, You Think You Can Network?
Most execs think they network well. Networking, like dancing, has a technical component as well as an artistic component. It is the artistic component that should leave an emotional imprint on the person you are interacting with. Having recently submerged in a lot of executive networking, I thought I would share some thoughts about trying to help us all think of this less like power dating and more like interested friends reconnecting to exchange ideas and insights. I firmly believe that good people connect with good people. Together we succeed.
My friend Ann is a terrific networker and power connector. She knows how to network better than most everyone I know. What I admire so much about Ann is that she networks because she genuinely loves helping people. Ann is well respected in the healthcare community. Her reputation is stellar. She networks because she is curious. She networks to bring value. She networks to learn. I always feel important and appreciated when I speak with her. When she asks for help, I try to prioritize that immediately. The net win of networking!
Executives know that the keys to success are about building and nurturing your relationships. It takes time. You have to be in it for the long haul. You know it's a two-way relationship, and it's not just about what you want to achieve; you realize it's also about giving something back that contributes to the other person's success. It's all about reciprocity.
This brings me to the first rule of exceptional networking.
Rule #1 of Exceptional Networking:
Network with people because you are curious and genuinely want to help them succeed. Get to know a bit about them as a person and then listen to their business needs to see how you can help them. Give more than you receive.
"The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity." —Keith Ferrazzi
Be Prepared For Career Changes. It Can Happen To You.
Let's face it—executives are busy! There are only so many hours in the day. Leaders understand that networking is an essential element to career growth. But, when do they pay attention to it? Most often, when they are in a job search or wanting to change roles. I just spoke to another friend who has been an industry leader as an SVP in a Fortune 1000 company recently downsized. She said, "I can't believe I am in this position. I gave everything to this company. What the hell am I going to do? Where do I go, and who do I talk to? How do you manage this stress?"
Don't become a statistic. Nurture your network before you need to use it.
Rule #2 of Exceptional Networking:
Build your network before you need it. Be clear in setting expectations for people you network with. Focus on building meaningful connections and not just a group of contacts.
Think about your current position. How did you land into your current role? I submit that most of you had someone in your direct or indirect network make an introduction and connected you to the right people. Right? I also venture to say that you took the initiative, interacted with your network, and made it happen.
Now, I ask you to think about the flip side: imagine you are on the receiving end getting requests from people who want to connect with you so they can grow their networks and careers. These requests can come from multiple channels, especially on LinkedIn. They may include requests from a mutual connection, an introduction from direct contact, someone from your alma mater, or someone who loves the company you work for and wants to hear your story.
How do you respond to these requests?
1. Do you happily accept and make time for the person?
2. Do you accept and move on without further action?
3. Do you accept and respond that you are unable to help at this time?
4. Do you ignore the request?
5. Do you not connect for other reasons?
You may be saying to yourself, I would love to help, but I don't have time to spare, or my plate is already full of other commitments. That's okay; those are valid reasons. We are not robots who can work 24/7; we have to prioritize the multiple requests for our own well-being.
However, I also believe that people genuinely want to help others by "paying it forward."
If we ask our brains the right question, such as, "How can I help this person?" rather than, "I don't want to make the time," the mind will find a creative solution that is a win-win for everyone. Imagine knowing that you can make a difference in someone's professional and personal aspirations. Now more than ever, virtual networking is crucial. We ALL need to build and nurture our networks.
As Zig Ziglar said, "You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want."
Be Clear In Setting Expectations When Networking.
Those who are really good at networking make time in their schedule weekly to make themselves available to others and to proactively reach out to industry thought leaders, associates, and previous colleagues to remain active in executive circles. This is almost impossible to do if you don't have a clear goal or plan.
Rule # 3 of Exceptional Networking:
Be prepared. Have an agenda and proposed time frame you can share in advance to put the connection at ease regarding your network request. You might ask for feedback from a recent article they wrote or commented on. Look for topics you have in common.
Describe two things you are hoping to learn from them, and two things you'd like to share and get their feedback on during a 20-30 minute call. Set a realistic timeframe to allow for a relaxed discussion and not a waterboarding event.
Executive Presence: Give Me A Reason To Network With You.
When reaching out via LinkedIn or email, be mindful of how you come across. You must think of yourself as a "business-of-one." How do people describe you? Can you honestly say that you have a strong personal brand or executive presence?
Showcase your executive presence in a way that causes the person you are trying to network with to want to learn more about you. "Networking that matters is helping people achieve their goals." —Seth Godin
Rule #4 of Exceptional Networking:
You be you and I'll be me. Your executive presence should:
- Inspire confidence. Show your personality but do so with authenticity, grace, and dignity. Be someone seen as legitimate and informed.
- Articulate clearly what you are trying to accomplish. Have your own personal tagline that demonstrates your brand and how you help others.
- Be attentive to the impact you are making. Physical appearance, as well as written correspondence, can make or break you.
Are You Talking To ME When You Network With Me?
Speaking of written correspondence, in general, older generations are more formal with punctuation and grammar, especially in longer format items like emails. Millennials are experts at switching between text and proper grammar, and they also tend to be the most annoyed with incorrect grammar usage. Meanwhile, Gen Z kids are "zero afraid" of using improper grammar. They see how they communicate as an extension of themselves, so their punctuation and grammar reflect their speaking style.
Language is ever-evolving, so whether the word of your generation was "groovy," "rad," or "totes," here are a few rules of thumb for grammar usage on LinkedIn.
Communicating clearly is the key. The whole idea of writing anything is to communicate something, right? So, keeping things concise and correct is the best way to get your point across to the largest audience.
Remember, this is business. If you were writing a novel, then yes, get expressive with words and grammar. But for LinkedIn, it is best to remember that the platform is business-oriented so use your words to flavor your posts and not your grammar.
Err on the side of grammar. When in doubt, it is best to err on the side of correctness. While it may not showcase your unique style, it also probably won't hurt you in a professional environment. For instance, using an acronym like "TFW" instead of "that feeling when," or the slang term "CEO of" without actually being the CEO could be confusing in a business setting.
Exceptional Executives Share Their Networking Skills.
We all know networking is important. It's likely a key component of how you got to this point in your career, along with the blood, sweat, and tears. In today's business environment, the rules of engagement (and tools) of networking have evolved along with the need for executives to be exceptional networkers. The job market is very competitive and, let's face it, we all want to feel a part of something at the end of the day. Make sure that you have a network that supports you and that you support as well.
It makes no difference if you are leading a global company, transitioning in the work you do as a leader, or going solo in a business-of-one, these four rules can be your compass to being an exceptional networker…and an exceptional person.
To learn more from your peers, read this article: "How Can Executives Use Failure To Their Advantage?"
Contributors: Amy Hinderer, Dawn Snodgrass, Cynthia McCarthy, and Karen Hercules-Doerr