Silicon Valley insider Karen Wickre shares her advice on establishing and maintaining connections based on generosity.
If there’s an essential tip to understanding how to be better at networking, it’s this: don’t think of it as networking. Think of it as more of a lifestyle.
And if there’s an ideal guide to show you that this is not a ridiculous idea, but a thing you, and just about anyone, can actually do, it’s Karen Wickre. A Silicon Valley veteran who has covered the tech space as a journalist, advised startups, and held editorial and comms roles at Twitter and Google (she joined the latter in 2002 when there were fewer than 600 people on board), Wickre lives the approach. She’s known inside tech circles as a super-connector, and known outside of those circles for her book, Taking The Work Out Of Networking, which explains her methods in a clear, compelling way.
If networking as lifestyle sounds somewhat akin to colonoscopy as lifestyle, it’s because you’re thinking of networking in the narrow, transactional, “working a room” way. And networking in that sense IS unpleasant for most of us. But with a mindset shift, and some new habits, networking becomes a communications philosophy centered on being open, curious and helpful. This is Wickre’s way. She views networking as the ultimate long game, where establishing and keeping connections is its own reward, not a way to initiate a transaction.
Many of the elements of Wickre’s book converge on the idea of developing and maintaining connections of all kinds without limiting the context for why people are immediately “useful.”
Viewed this way, networking becomes less a form of drudgery than a way of thinking about relationships. By establishing and maintaining connections based on generosity and thoughtfulness, Wickre has built, and shows you how to build, a network that can support you in ways you may never have imagined when you reached out to that old coworker, or met that interesting person from that conference that time.
For Wickre, developing this skill, while certainly a career helper, was less a calculated move and more a matter of expressing an authentic personality trait — a self-described introvert, she was the observant kid who became that friend who kept track of where everyone was living and working. “This book fell into this funny place for me as an avocation,” she says. “It definitely ties to my professional life, but I now realize, looking back, that this is kind of the manifestation of who I am.”
Wickre generously networked with us and shared tips and wisdom on developing loose touch, and rethinking your networking approach.
Play the long game by keeping in “loose touch”
One of the central themes of Wickre’s book, and key to her networking approach, is “nurture it before you need it.” She focuses on keeping in loose touch, which is simply checking in with new acquaintances and existing connections without immediate strings, or any obligation to meet up or perform a task. “I tell people, build the habit now,” Wickre says. “The fallback is, people think networking is something you pull out when you need to get a job, and that’s it. But my many years in Silicon Valley have shown me how much people move around; it’s very fluid. The expectation, the norm, is you not only change companies frequently, but you probably try a completely new thing. So with that expectation of fluidity it’s absolutely to your benefit to stay in touch with people.”
The nice thing about this approach is that it’s simple, and intuitive, in that it turns what many of us often think about doing into quick, accessible actions. Wickre’s advice is to turn those passing thoughts into loose touch opportunities — dropping an email with a link to a story a contact might like, for example, or offering sincere congrats to that friend of a friend who just took a big new job.
“If you meet someone interesting, you may not follow up immediately but you remember, I liked that person, I’d love to see them again,” she says. “So, some kind of follow up establishes something that maybe you don’t use often, or immediately, but you have that connection. And you can come back to it later.”
Build your network on giving, and it’ll be there when you need to take
Wickre’s own reputation and flair for connecting is evidence that generosity is the best foundation on which to build your network.
In her book she says: “20 years ago, I didn’t set out to amass a lot of contacts or cash in on a bunch of favors. What I had was a strong desire for two things: one, make meaningful connections with people because they helped me feel less alone in the world; and two, share those connections with others for the advice or answers they needed.”
It’s nice to not be THAT person who just appears out of the blue with a sheepish ask for a quick favor. Establishing a habit of giving—offering praise, making an introduction, or just sending a thoughtful or dumb note to someone who crossed your mind—is its own reward. And, down the road, when you do have an ask, you’ve built the scaffolding to comfortably support it.
The network is coming from inside the office!! (Or, don’t forget the power of networking in the job you already have)
This is the time machine part of reading Wickre’s book — that feeling of wanting to go back to your earlier self and shift your approach. That shift: instead of just thinking about your job as “the work”—being productive, putting in the hours, crushing KPIs — think of the relationships as the work, too.
“I’ve thought a lot about this because a lot of the people I consider friends have come from work,” she says. “We spend a lot of time at work with other people so to me it seems silly to think that life doesn’t leak through — we know it does. Work is full of drama and angst and it’s all part of your life. Certainly some people are all business at work. But with people you like and work with through thick and thin, it’s about, man, we have some experiences together; we have a bond because of that.”
The key thing to keep in mind here is that developing those bonds at work doesn’t have to mean becoming besties. People get squeamish around “work friends” in particular because no one wants to step over a line. “There ARE deep relationships that develop out of work, and that’s great. But for many of them it’s more like a bond that you maintain over time, and that bond is more about, I’ll take your call, I’ll answer your question, I’ll check in to see what you’re up to. To have those connections that come from your professional life, that’s an asset. I have a hundred of those kinds of people I know, and that’s who you keep in loose touch with.”
(The forthcoming paperback edition of Taking The Work Out Of Networking has a whole new chapter with scads of ideas for networking inside your job. Check it out in October).
Getting started: set a goal for weak tie outreach
While all of the above sounds pretty straightforward, there’s a strong chance you’re not doing it! For those of us who just haven’t nailed this to date, there’s the question of getting the ball rolling. Wickre’s advice is to start with weak ties — the people you already know, however loose your connection — and make a plan. “I get this a lot; younger people will say ‘how do I get started,’ or people will say, ‘I work at a big busy company, how do I get outside my team?’ The same answer applies: Make a goal for yourself,” she tells us. “Maybe it’s that you’ll reach out to a couple of people a month or every week where the criteria might be: I like this person and I’ve thought about them as time has gone by and I wonder what they’re doing. Or, this person always has interesting ideas about X. These are people you already have some basis with. Reach out to them as opposed to strangers. Do that and say ‘Can we just catch up?’ It might be a call or an email exchange. That’s ok. It can be ‘let’s just have coffee.’”
Go to that thing. You’ll be glad after
But… the new season of Mindhunter! Yeah, it’s tough. Going pretty much anywhere is almost impossible to conceive of most of the time. But be honest: when you do end up going to that party/conference/thing, it’s almost always worth it, even if it’s rarely in the way you thought it was going to be. Wickre sums up a simple approach to in-person networking opportunities: “In a word, go.” And when you go, be open — look for a quick conversation in between sessions of a conference, for example, instead of being face-down in your phone.
Of course, everyone’s got schedule limitations. Wickre herself, while a proponent of the social benefits of going to the thing, avoids a too-stacked calendar. But she also gives herself maximum chance of getting out of the house and overcoming the hassle of going to an event by establishing up front that it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. “I know myself and I know my limits about scheduling things. But to make myself go to something where I know I’m going to get something valuable I have to understand within myself: ‘ok, you don’t have to stay late. Just go and see how it is.’ I have to give myself that talk. I almost always know I can escape the thing — I’m pretty good at just exiting.”
The Keys To Networking The Wickre Way
The TL:DR version: Three things to know about networking, in the words of Karen Wickre.
- The most important element is being open and curious about meeting or connecting with new people. By that I mean, it doesn’t have to be a three-hour getting acquainted conversation. It’s more about: if I go to a conference I’m going to be in open mode vs “let me check my email in every break” mode. And I’m going to decide to talk to someone, even if it’s just, “how are you liking it?” “what are you getting out of this?” It’s really small talk, but you’re at least present and open and curious in the moment. And just generally, I think it’s about not being pro forma. Whether it’s meeting strangers or it’s “oh, you’re the new person in finance; how did you get here?” — any little element of being curious is valuable because you don’t know what might come from it.
- Another key element to me is to emphasize some kind of one-to-one connection. It could be on the phone, it could be a video call. Ideally at some point it’s in person but it doesn’t have to be a constant in-person thing. But it helps so much if you only have an email relationship to at some point, have that connection. For example, you and I could have done this interview and I could have answered over email, but the fact we’re talking makes a difference; finding out a little more about each other makes a difference. If it’s on the job where you have colleagues who are in distributed locations, even if you only get together once a year or you make time for a video call, make time for something that’s not only literally talking work. That builds a bond. Something that’s more conversational, a little broader than the immediate work agenda. That’s the thing that is kind of the glue over time.
- The third part is the ability to follow up over time — this idea of keeping in loose touch. You’ve established you like each other, you enjoy the same humor, or whatever it is, and you keep in loose touch. And it does not have to be always, or even most of the time, a live conversation. But you have that bedrock. It’s that loose touch around stuff that doesn’t have a transaction attached.