Dr. Lisa Toppin, Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Illumina Inc.
Before the pandemic, sessions on networking were taking place constantly. Every conference offered an expert to help you network, and many of them hit the same points—follow up, offer something to your new acquaintance, etc. Rarely did the conversation go to the depths it needed for one to become really effective at networking. The advice stayed on the surface and, thus, so did many of the efforts. As a result, networking has often been associated with an “ick” factor. It feels disingenuous because historically we were encouraging people to use tactics, which absolutely lands the effort in the disingenuous lane.
The pandemic has changed some of that. In obvious ways, networking has become more difficult as we do not gather the way we used to. In some ways, we have a new opportunity to network for real. Effective networking post-pandemic is centered around being real. That should not be a new concept, but it’s just easier to make happen now. We have been through too much in the past few years and don’t have the energy anymore for performative efforts. Successful efforts would include extending real relationships, telling the truth about your wants and needs, and still—following up.
Networking has always been about extending relationships. Many of the relationships we have we may have just found ourselves in. Maybe we can point to where we met, but the relationship likely formed organically. This is why the formal nature of networking feels so inorganic. We are looking to extend a relationship on purpose. One way to do this well is to get clear about why you are extending a relationship. Are you in the same industry or discipline? Are you on the lookout for great talent for your organization? (If you are not, you should be.) Do you need to meet new folks to address a specific issue? All of these are the right reasons, and, of course, there are many more. The key is to be real.
How can you check to see if you are being real? Ask yourself if you feel vulnerable. If you do feel a bit exposed, then you are likely offering more of yourself and more likely in the “real” zone. Like any relationship, be clear about what you offer and how you can show up in the relationship. Are you a source to introduce more people? Are you a source of information? Are you fun at a conference? Do you have great ideas regardless of the topic? All of these and more are of great value to any person. Your clarity allows you to offer that to people who do not know you well yet.
We have a funny relationship with the truth. We crave it, and yet, when it is our turn to offer it, we hesitate. Truth is actually your superpower. It’s a power we all have equal amounts of. When we offer it, always bathed in kindness and compassion, we go much further than when we don’t. We misunderstand that exposed feeling as vulnerability to be avoided, but it’s the only path to true relationships. When we’re not networking in person, we don’t have the advantage of distractions in the room. All we have is each other, whether it’s on Zoom or on the phone. Offering our truth in that moment is the most powerful thing we can offer. Tell people exactly what you are seeking and listen for exactly what they are seeking. Put it all on the table in a real way and watch how people lean in with you. Pay attention to how it feels to lean in with them. Listen, stay present and share yourself and all that you have to offer.
Following up is the last piece of the puzzle. It’s not new. We always had to follow up, but we would do so using old, played-out rules. We would send an article related to a snippet of a conversation we shared to demonstrate how interested we were in that conversation. Did it work? Maybe only for those who would have actually sent an article without being told to do so in a networking class. In other words, those performative activities were perceived as such unless it was truly authentic.
We are back at square one, and authenticity is the currency of the day. We can quickly perceive when actions don’t feel genuine, so offer real follow-up and then make the effort to follow through. Scheduling a Zoom meeting or a phone call may feel a little less natural, but the pandemic has taught us that making connections is very important, no matter how we do it. Let’s just keep playing this way until we get new cards.
The mental health crisis and the ongoing discussion about it have made it so we can now see the challenges presented when we don’t have each other. We need each other. We are clear about that. The key to effective networking is remembering how much we need each other and then being sincere in offering yourself to a new person in real terms. Make new friends—that’s the essence of networking.