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Building Authentic Networks

Professional Relationships: Part 1

Two women in an empty coffee shop
Unsplash | Seemi Samuel

The relationships you form in the professional world are more important than you may think. For those of you that work for companies for 40+ hours each week, you spend around 2000 hours with colleagues each year. Those 2000 hours aren’t always enough to create lasting relationships because, like any relationship, professional connections require intentionality.

Over the last 2.5 years in the corporate world, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships we create, build, and maintain within the workplace. In the past, I’ve written about mentorship, one of the most important professional relationships, but there are other connections that are important to build and understand how to navigate. For the next couple months, I’ll be writing about aspects of the many relationships we build at work, starting with the foundation of professional relationships, your network.

I used to treat networking like it was a dirty word. To me, networking was the desperate LinkedIn message to someone I met in class 3 years ago, or a forced conversation at a cocktail table. That was my personal definition of networking, but I’ve noticed that many college students and young professionals have a level of discomfort or fear of networking. It’s a fear we need to push past, because in the modern business world, having a network is a necessity. Not just because you need other people to talk to for 2000 hours each year, but because your network is a cornerstone of navigating your career. Your network can provide information and access that can accelerate your growth and help you make informed decisions.

Your network is made up of people in your professional sphere who you feel comfortable doing a favor for, and who are comfortable doing a favor for you. This may sound transactional, but there’s a difference between the people that you know, and your network. Your network should be willing to do a bit of work, either through being a listening ear or helping you in other ways. The core of your network is mutual reliability and the willingness to help. To make the most of your network, it should be diverse in terms of function, career level, and even company. This diversity provides a range of perspectives to help you throughout your career. Here’s an image of some of the key roles you’ll find in your network.

An image with multiple concentric circles, showing mentors, managers, friends, and coworkers within your network

Your Network as an Information Source

Like mentors, your network can provide the information you need to succeed. Whether it’s about the strategic direction of the industry or changes within your company, the information your network gives you can help you reach the next level in your career. Every time I start a new project, I reach out to people in my network to learn about things like the working style of a mutual connection or the context of the role. No matter what I ask about, I want to tap into the wisdom of others to guide me as I progress.

Gaining Access through your Network

Your network can also give you access to new opportunities or leaders you may not know. In my organization, your network is the primary way to find new projects and expose yourself to new areas of the business. To understand opportunities outside of your organization, build connections with people outside your company. Their perspective is often unique, and can highlight limiting practices that your organization holds as truth. Maintaining these relationships can give you more flexibility and independence in your career.

The age-old adage says “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. In reality, it’s what you know and who you know — and your network plays a role in both spaces.

How to Build a Network

Building a network isn’t an overnight project. It takes intentional relationship building and hard work, and everyone approaches this a bit differently. In an episode of HBR Ideacast I recently listened to, Yale School of Management professor Marissa King described 3 types of networkers.

The first type of networker is the convener. Conveners network through building trusted relationships and maintaining relationships they already have. Imagine the person who is still close to their manager from 3 years ago or an old professor they had in college — that’s a convener. One of the benefits of this type of networking is that there is a lot of trust and emotional support built within your network. However, because you’re simply maintaining relationships you’ve built, you may find yourself in an echo-chamber. If you’re a convener, make sure you’re seeking diverse points of view as you progress through your career.

The next type of networker is the broker. Brokers are good at using the “fake it ‘till you make it” mindset and serving as a connector, introducing people in their network to each other. Imagine someone who is always trying to connect people they think should partner together or pulling people they know into the conversation. Brokers’ form of networking allows them to be innovative, but they can also be seen as transactional and exploitative. If you’re a broker, focus on being empathetic and trustworthy, so people understand you’re not networking or name-dropping solely for your own benefit.

The last type of networker is the expansionist. The expansionist has a huge network and seems to know everyone in the organization. Imagine the person who seems to have an un-ending mental Rolodex and loves meeting new people. The large network of an expansionist gives them a lot of influence and reach. However, an expansionist has many loose ties, and may not be very close to individuals in their network since they maintain many connections. As an expansionist, make sure you have a core close group that you can lean on when needed.

None of these archetypes are good or bad, but there can be an archetype that’s good or bad for you. Pursue the type of network building that feels natural to you. For me right now, that’s the convener. For some of my friends, it’s the expansionist. As long as you’re true to how you build relationships, networking shouldn’t be something you fear or something that makes you feel fraudulent.

Networking is the most authentic when you’re being authentic.

Building Relationships in the Age of COVID

COVID-19 has hampered the typical methods of meeting people and maintaining relationships. The unintentional collisions of the office aren’t possible when your office is your bedroom. There’s likely no opportunity to meet someone new at the coffee machine in your kitchen. It’s easy to push off making connections until you return to the office, but it’s even more important to focus on relationship-building when working in a virtual setting. Many have turned their attention to social media platforms, like LinkedIn, to foster their professional growth. LinkedIn has become more controversial as of late, but at its core, it’s a solution that can allow you to stay connected in the professional sphere. It isn’t a replacement for relationships, so it shouldn’t be the only way you keep up with your network. But, if you scroll past the humble brags and personal branding, it can remind you to reach out when you see someone got a promotion or is job searching. Those quick messages or conversations are an easy but effective way to keep in touch.

A new kid on the block in terms of social networking is Clubhouse. Clubhouse is an audio-only social media application that launched in April 2020 and is still in beta. Clubhouse’s key feature is the ability to host rooms, where individuals can ask questions and share their thoughts. Though its purpose is wider than the professional realm, I’ve seen many rooms that have a panel of experts who answer questions from job-seekers, solopreneurs, and entry-level employees. I was recently in a Clubhouse room where Alyson Stoner (yes, this Alyson Stoner) was among other social media experts, giving advice to less experienced content creators. I’ve also been in rooms where recruiters and people who worked in the tech industry provided tips on how to break into the tech industry and offered to connect outside of the app. Though Clubhouse is quite new, it has already allowed people to make new connections and democratized access to experienced practitioners.

Working from home brings the importance of professional networks into stark reality. Professional relationships are an investment from both parties. Like financial investing, the earlier you make that initial investment, the higher your returns. Don’t try to meet new people at the exact moment that you need advice or a referral. Build your relationships over time, so they’re long-lasting and genuine. This year especially, I’ve been grateful that I already had strong relationships within my professional community that I could lean on. But, it’s never too late to build your community, and as long as you’re being authentic, networking isn’t something to be afraid of. There’s a long list of things I’d like to leave in 2020, let’s add the fear of networking to that list.

My postings reflect my own views and do not represent the views of my employer.

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human& is about sharing the content that inspires us, makes us think twice, and helps us better understand our budding careers. Our goal is to spark conversation and encourage others to learn about how organizations can keep humans at the center of their decisions.

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Nimi Oyeleye

Nimi Oyeleye

Innovation Consultant who seeks to understand human experiences. I love learning new things, including where to find the best iced vanilla lattes in Houston.

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