Networking is most efficient and rewarding when you follow a few rules and maintain protocol.
Your network is a living, breathing organism that should be nurtured. You need to “give” just as much as you “take” but that doesn’t mean that the pattern of engagement has to be one-for-one. There may be long stretches – weeks, months, years – during which you offer advice or connections without “receiving” anything in exchange. And then, in the future, you may tap the same network for insights on a new job or competitor. Remember, consider the totality of your network relationships – think long term and big picture; as long as the giving and taking balances over time, you’re okay.
Earn access to network
After almost 30 years of global higher education and work experience, I have curated a network that is uniquely mine. I fiercely protect my relationships, careful to avoid overstepping with requests or overburdening any one branch of the network. While I am amenable to introducing people to others in my network, I need a good reason to do so. I’ve had too many people asking for an introduction to decision makers because they want to shortcut processes instead of making the effort themselves. For example, recent graduates often ask to be connected to senior executives whom I have known for years. When I ask why or what avenues they have already explored, I am usually met with a blank stare. Remember, my network is sacred – you have to earn access to it and that means owning your journey and taking risks yourself.
Stay in touch, for the long term
I have always made it a point to stay in touch with people over time. Many of the opportunities I have enjoyed have been the direct result of forging personal connections and heeding the advice of mentors, even if the potential benefit of the advice wasn’t obvious at the time.
Twenty years ago, I made a career move that transformed my entire life. Moving through four roles over seven years at a technology giant, I built a deep, interconnected network that valued my skill set and appreciated the diversity of perspective that I brought to a company eventually that spawned much of Silicon Valley’s current greatest hits. Even though I left Yahoo thirteen years ago, the network that I nurtured over the last two decades led to the investors and customers for my latest startup.
This photo includes 6 people who worked at Yahoo and then went on to hold leadership positions at
Facebook, GitHub, Yelp, GoFundMe, and Slack.
While the tools of networking when I was starting out in my career 28 years ago were faxed or posted letters, landline calls, and voice mails, I always made it a point to reach out and stay in touch, even if it was logistically challenging. In today’s uber-connected world, there is no excuse to not nurture a network. LinkedIn, email, and other social media have made it easier to stay in touch but harder to maintain the same level of authenticity.
The word ‘relationship’ has many different dimensions. What’s important to remember is that in networking, not everyone is a friend. Instead, there are many connections in a network that are transactional in nature, and that’s okay. You don’t have to be friends with someone to have a mutually beneficial relationship with one another. Just make sure that the construct of the relationship is clear and then leverage it between those lines.
Related to this is the concept of “paying it forward.” Instead of thinking “what can this person do for me right now?”, think about how to make the pie bigger, over the continuum of time, not just at one point. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and help when I can, especially if the “cost” is low. Because, as they say, “what comes around goes around” and you never know when that person’s experiences may be of value to you.
A few years ago, the daughter of one of my neighbor’s colleagues needed help that I could uniquely provide. I met with the girl and her family three times, offering advice and guidance on their predicament. Based on my insights, the family proceeded and in the end, the outcome was better than they had even expected. They were so grateful for my assistance and asked how they could repay me. I assured them that, if and when I needed help, I would let them know.
Fast forward a couple of years….I dropped the father a quick WhatsApp to check in on how things were going. We continued to chat and it turns out that this gentleman’s brother was in a similar line of work as me. He connected me and from there, the brother and I forged a business alliance that continues to pay dividends. Again, when I first spoke to the family, I had no idea if they could help me or not. I was simply helping a friend of a friend, with no ulterior motive.
Female entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders swap stories and strengthen networks
Identify multipliers and outliers
I have worked in industries, roles, and geographies with few women. The multipliers and outliers in my network helped me find creative ways to find a tribe and advance my career when no one looked or thought like me.
I met my husband in business school; he was one-year senior to me. That meant our networks included our own classmates, those one year ahead, and one year behind each of us; our business school networks both overlapped and were discrete. Today each of us leverages the collective network for work-related help, advice on vacation spots, and much more. My sister attended business school at the same time as us, but on the other side of the country; I became friendly with her classmates and once again multiplied my network.
Similarly, my husband and I worked at the same company for seven years. We were in different divisions, so we had the benefit of knowing more people in total that our own individual spheres allowed. Again, 11 years later, that network has been invaluable through so many phases of life and work, from raising venture capital to having a place to crash when visiting a new city.
Below is a sample list of the things that have emerged in our lives as a result of nurturing our networks:
- Kids’ school networks: Securing a coveted flat in our building
- Expat network: Meeting my business partner in Mumbai, who also happened to be from California
- Professional network: Paying only $150 for $1000 orchestra level tickets to Hamilton on Broadway
- Professional network: Acting as a cosigner on an education loan for a mentee
- Personal network: Introducing my sister to a neighbor who also happened a senior business leader whom she wanted to invite to speak at a conference
- MBA network: Giving a classmate and her family the keys to our flat one Christmas, while they were visiting Mumbai and we were traveling in Cambodia
Nurture to enjoy the blossom
Sunny Bates, an expert in human network development once said that building a network is like cultivating a botanical garden: variety is what makes the garden enchanting. In the same way, you don’t want everyone in your network to belong to one species. Instead, if you cultivate a network with a people across a range of ages and stages and professions and passions, and to tend them carefully, your network will delight for years to come. So, go out and meet new people, learn to draw connections between and amongst them. And then enjoy the benefits of collective years of experience, wisdom and knowledge while feeding the eco-system yourself.