06th March, 2019
“Self-described introvert and veteran tech executive Karen Wickre shares her secret to cultivating professional connections with a minimum of anxiety and awkwardness.”
There are two particular things that most of us hate about having to network. One is its baldly transactional nature. In a Harvard Business Review article, this wry definition of networking was offered: “the unpleasant task of trading favors with strangers.” The other is that needing to do it feels like a vulnerability. Reaching out to ask someone to put in a good word to a hiring manager, or getting a lead about a new opening, can make you feel desperate (shouldn’t you be able to do this on your own??).
Having to put yourself in the hands of a stranger or near stranger for help is stressful, too. Add to that any kind of time pressure — say, if you’ve suddenly lost your job or you’re in the midst of family upheaval — and you’re likely to feel bad about yourself at a time when you need to appear to be on solid footing. That may make it doubly hard and painful to put yourself out there.
Now it’s time to get OK with seeking help for yourself — that’s the key to making networking work.
Here’s a little secret: At some point, every one of us will have to ask for help from someone else. Maybe it’s for a job or family advice; it might be about a career pivot or relocation; it could be for medical or retirement guidance. You, and everyone else, will need to reach out to a number of people for contacts, information, insights or support. Presumably, you are happy to lend a friendly hand (or ear) to other people. Now it’s time to get OK with seeking help for yourself — that’s the key to making networking work.
The key to overcoming your fears about networking is to practice a little bit every day — and to do it when you don’t need specific help. I call it “keeping in loose touch”: You pop up now and again to your connections and acquaintances (old and new), without any obligation to follow up or see each other in person. If you do this when you’re not feeling needy, you will begin to see yourself as a giver, not a taker. And if you can occasionally solve problems for others as a result of these check-ins, it will help you get over your fear of feeling needy.
My guiding principle for easier networking is this: Nurture it before you need it. In his book Friend of a Friend, business school professor David Burkus(TED talk: Why you should know how much your coworkers get paid) zeroes in on the idea that the people you already know — but the ones who are our more distant contacts, or our “weak ties” — are the ones best suited to help you. As he observes, ”When we have a career setback … we tend to only tell a close circle of friends who may or may not be able to help. … Instead, we ought to go to our weak and dormant ties, tell them our story, and see what opportunities they have. Even better, we ought to start a regular practice of re-engaging with our weak and dormant ties.” That’s what keeping in loose touch is about.
Loose-touch moments serve as connective tissue and a marker of your ongoing relationship.
Long ago, my loose-touch habit consisted of a Post-it list of the phone calls I’d make each day stuck to the cover of a well-worn address book. If I missed anyone, they’d go on the next day’s Post-it list. Fast forward to the 21st century and much of our communication takes place via texting, direct messaging and email. None of these requires a phone call, so you don’t have to worry about interrupting anyone, because people can respond to you when they’re free. It’s also perfect for introverts; you can take the time to compose thoughtful messages, and you’re not as on-the-spot for a perfect response.
The effect of loose touch is to put you into someone’s consciousness for a few minutes, and vice versa. These moments serve as connective tissue (“we have this in common”) and a marker of your ongoing relationship. In cultivating loose-touch connections, know that your network won’t appear all at once; it takes steady, continuous work. It’s how I stay in touch with dozens of people. I’ll share tidbits seen on Twitter or other news of mutual interest. By “share,” I send a brief greeting and a link to something to read or watch. If you’re a regular on LinkedIn, you can keep in loose touch with contacts via private messages on that platform. Or you can use Facebook direct messages or private messaging on Instagram — it just depends on which services you use and which ones your contacts use.
Loose touch is how I keep up with a diaspora of friends I made during my decade at Google. Many of them have moved on to work at many other companies. We send around funny or peculiar news items about our old employer or one of its competitors. There are times when I send a news link accompanied only by ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (a shrug), and it’s not uncommon to just get back a K in return. Voila! It’s a loose-touch moment.
Shared interests are fertile ground for loose touch, even with professional contacts. For example, my friend Erika is a dog lover and a fervent promoter of good customer experience. We often send each other dog GIFs, or we have a virtual laugh over the latest corporate mishandling of customers. Sometimes we do this via Twitter messages or in a private group that we share on Slack. Occasionally interspersed with our messages about dogs and corporate mishaps, one of us will pass along a workshop invitation or a lead for consulting work.
Loose touch may lead to an immediate in-person conversation, but it may not until much later (or at all). Years ago, I met a young PR staffer at a startup; I’ll call her Jenny. Her boss, who had been a colleague with me at Google, brought Jenny to meet and talk with me about how to develop a company blog. As we changed jobs and traded friendly tweets or notes over the next few years, Jenny and I kept in (very) loose touch but we’ve never sat down face-to-face since that first meeting. Fast forward, and today she is a partner at a venture-capital firm. Last year, she introduced one of her firm’s companies to me in the hopes that I could help them with content strategy. I was appreciative and took on their project. I’ve told Jenny that I’d like to thank her for the referral with a drink or meal — but even if we don’t get around to it, our loose tie remains strong.
The whole point of loose touch is that it’s not a burden. The more obligations you end up with, the less chance you have of keeping up.
Just spending 10 minutes a day on loose touch can keep you connected with a lot of people. This small amount of effort can have a much bigger payoff, in good feelings if not in eventual outcomes. I usually do it in the mornings because my pre-work ritual of checking email and my news feeds is how I limber up for the day. As I scan the headlines, I’ll share a story or two that I know are of interest to people I know, along with a short note: “This made me think of you. What’s your take? And how are you?”
There’s one major downside of loose touch: a proliferation of invitations, questions and coffee dates you don’t want. The whole point of loose touch is that it’s not a burden. The more obligations you end up with, the less chance you have of keeping things loose, or of even keeping up. If, in response to a “thinking of you” note, you get an invite to meet at 2PM next Thursday for coffee with someone you don’t know well, you’re within your rights to put it off. You can delay it until you want to meet — or you can delay it forever. I’ve had slight acquaintances reach out, eager to join Google, and ask me to meet for coffee to talk about working there. Much as I’d like to be helpful, 30,000 more people have joined the company since I left. My information isn’t that current. Instead, I rely on a boundary: I’ll send an email with a couple of paragraphs with my broad impressions, perhaps include a recent article that’s relevant, and sign off with genuine “good luck.”
Julie is a serial entrepreneur and a master connector whom I know, and she is also a pro at loose touch. She believes that one reason she does it so easily is because of the network of women she met at her first “real” journalism job, which was at Time Inc. “It was such a great collegial environment, not competitive like other media outlets. We all helped each other,” she says. “I still depend on them. When I ask myself how to tackle this next business challenge, I can call or email a dozen women to ask, ‘Do you like this idea? How should I move forward?’ It’s usually feedback I’m looking for, but they often want to introduce me to other friends or contacts who might be able to help me reach my goal. The other women do the same when they have problems to solve.”
In describing her circle, Julie touches on the main tenets of loose touch: you do it intermittently, not constantly, and there’s an unforced quality that works for everyone. When I asked what drives her to not only connect but stay in touch over time, Julie said, “It goes back to the basics of being a good person, being a good neighbor. You should always be looking out for your friends and former colleagues and neighbors. If you’re a good person, you are always ready to help them — and then it’s easy to receive or ask for help later.”