Early on in my career I was encouraged to build my network. To me that meant attending happy hours and chit chatting with strangers. Although I’m an introvert, I’m quite comfortable in social settings. But the whole world of professional networking confounded me. What was I supposed to talk about? And how did conversations over canapés have any bearing on my ability to do my job?
Despite my hesitation, I joined a professional association and jumped in feet first. I’m an experiential learner so I quickly figured out the basics of engagement. Maybe you’re familiar with some them too:
That was 15+ years ago. Fast forward to today and I have a pretty robust network, both on and off line. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was introduced to the social science behind networking. And what I learned challenged some of my beliefs and habits around network building. Here, I share three insights that may challenge what you think too.
Are we even friends? Are we friends-friends? Or just friends?
It’s tempting to categorize contacts as personal or professional. But people and the relationships we form with them aren’t often that clear cut. For example, co-workers often celebrate birthdays, weddings and babies together. These are all very personal occasions. And sometimes working relationships begin as familial relations or friendships (think Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream).
Sociologists refer to this as multiplexity - when two people have more than one kind of relationship. This isn’t to suggest that you attempt to make BFFs of every professional contact. But when a relationship evolves organically from professional to personal (or vice versa), studies suggest that trust increases. As a result both parties have access to better information, resources and opportunities.
Birds of a feather shouldn’t always flock together
For a good part of my early career, my network mostly consisted of AEC marketing and business development professionals. More specifically, it consisted of members of SMPS’ Arizona chapter. I’d fallen victim to homophily - a term social scientists use to explain how and why people are attracted to others like themselves.
Why is homophily a negative impact on networks? Shouldn’t we want to connect with people who “speak our language?” Well, yes and no. While we benefit from a community of sameness, there are also blind spots because everyone knows the same information and/or has similar perspectives. When we diversify the make-up of our networks - across role, industry, experience, and expertise - we benefit from a diversity of information and perspectives. That information may lead to a new job, insightful industry intel, or a refined client strategy.
Activities trump appetizers
Quick! What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “networking?” If you imagine a spread of appetizers and a sea of faces in a restaurant, hotel or conference center, you’re not alone.
“The most common association we have with connections and networking is networking events,” writes David Burkus, author of Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks that can Transform your Life and Career. “While these events promise a diverse group of potential new connections, in practice most of us end up clinging to people we already know or new people who are similar to us.”
Strategic network builders should focus on shared activities that spark a genuine passion and require cross-collaboration. The time you spend working with others towards a collective goal will allow for organic, genuine connections. Serve on a non-profit board, compete in a sports league, or work on a corporate initiative. The connections you make will be much more meaningful and memorable than chatting over egg rolls or stuffed mushrooms.
Maisha Hagan is the owner and head coach at Beauty & the Boss - a professional development and career coaching service for women in male-dominated industries.