How To Be A Better Networker
Professor Kathleen O’Connor draws on her recent research to offer insights on developing individual social capital
Now, perhaps more than ever, it pays to network well. With the
economy fighting its way out of the doldrums and job security at
historical lows, cultivating strong social and business networks is
essential. It is through these connections that we exert our influence
and find opportunities and support.
Networks are especially important in a tough labor market. “There are so many more applicants than in the past, it’s more important to make a connection; you’re looking for a leg up,” says Kathleen O’Connor, associate professor of management and organizations. How can you get ahead of other applicants? It might be because you know the next-door neighbor of the guy who’s hiring, she says. You just never know when an acquaintance might be able to help you — or vice versa. “Networking is about being receptive and open to connections,” says O’Connor.
Not a self-serving enterpriseSome people are put off by the thought of building and maintaining their network, says O’Connor, because they see it as self-serving and opportunistic. “But we need to get past that sense that networking is sleazy, instrumental, and hyper-strategic,” she says. “Just leave yourself open: You don’t know when you’re going to meet someone who might be helpful to you. At the same time, focus on how you can help them.”
Certainly, most of us know at least one serial networker — the loud, back-slapping type who works his way around a room collecting a stack of business cards. But, according to O’Connor, that’s not what a good networker typically looks like.
People who appeal to others as potential networking targets come across as likeable, warm, calm, and resilient, says O’Connor. Individuals who are personally and physically appealing attract networking activity (physical attractiveness commands a higher premium in men than it does in women).
“People want to affiliate with people who are genuine, likeable, and helpful,” she says. “To the extent that you can present that image and live up to it, that will draw networking attention. You have more people coming up to you, making it easier to network.”
So, getting a decent haircut, investing in nice suits, and careful grooming in general are good ways to increase your networking appeal. Acting calm and resilient is also helpful; curtail venting sessions about the boss’s unfairness or short deadlines. “If you’re easily rattled in difficult circumstances, that can put off potential networking partners,” says O’Connor.
Reach outIn addition to making yourself an appealing target, take steps to build your network. “Take opportunities to build ties before you need them,” advises O’Connor. “Accept invitations to lunch, become active in professional organizations, volunteer to take on projects with people you want to know. The more your network includes people from different circles, connections to people you don’t know (yet), the more you can offer people who are looking for help. Being a person who connects others will enable you to be influential.”
When opportunities arise to extend your network, O’Connor counsels erring on the side of saying yes. Take that evening to accompany a colleague to a Chamber of Commerce meeting; you never know whom you’ll meet. “These invitations don’t need to be time-consuming,” says O’Connor. “We’re in front of somebody, we meet them and exchange cards, have a pleasant and memorable conversation, make an impression. Later on, if we reach out to them, we have a context in which to do so.”
But you don’t want to accept LinkedIn invitations from complete strangers. “I won’t take invitations from people I don’t know, or who don’t seem familiar, because I don’t know how this person got my name,” says O’Connor. “I think of any invitation I accept as potentially vouching for someone.” She points out that networks depend on the role we play. Someone like Steve Calk, associate director at Johnson’s Career Management Center, for instance, has more than 500 LinkedIn contacts; most of us will have considerably smaller networks.
O’Connor explains that our network relationships can be described as either “strong” or “weak.” Strong ties are characterized by trust and a high frequency of contact, as compared with weak ties we have with people we don’t see very often and to whom we are not particularly close — but who would still recognize your name and take your call.
Both types are necessary to a good network. “Strong ties — the kinds we have with partners, parents, mentors, close friends — are ideal for providing social and emotional support,” says O’Connor. Weak ties are those we have with people whose paths do not often cross ours, and are probably in different professional and personal circles. “Because these people move in different geographic, industry, and company circles, they can give us access to novel information and connect us to people we don’t know. So asking your uncle about job prospects will likely yield less than asking your uncle’s accountant, as it is all about getting access to information that is outside your network.”
O’Connor suggests aiming for a rough balance between strong and weak ties. Cultivating weak ties is typically harder, so O’Connor suggests sending a friendly e-mail every six to eight months, holiday cards, or articles of interest.
Bridging the gapA caution: O’Connor’s research shows that people who work as brokers between two disparate groups in an organization are often regarded with mistrust. Because these brokers sometimes receive better pay and faster promotions, young executives eager to make their mark in a new organization may strive to identify spaces between unconnected groups, insert themselves, and facilitate the transfer of resources. “But nine out of ten of these bridges that brokers build disappear the following year,” says O’Connor. “People who move to occupy brokerage positions in networks are perceived to be less trustworthy, less likeable, and more strategic actors than those who remain in non-brokerage positions. The more distinct the groups being brokered are from one another, the greater the negative perceptions of the broker. Yet, ironically, it’s the advantages that come through bridging disparate groups that pay dividends for brokers.”
Accordingly, she advises anyone trying to play the role of a broker to actively cultivate a self-image of being helpful, fair, and honest. “You’re not extracting benefit for yourself — you’re providing some benefit, helping the two unconnected groups.”