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It is Definitely the Time to Redefine Networking

With the COVID19 pandemic dramatically reshaping the once-hot job market, today’s C-Suite in transition must master the art of networking. For many executives in job search mode, reaching out to strangers is a misunderstood opportunity to share rather than to ask. Shields Meneley Partners’ Principal and Executive Coach Elizabeth Olson discusses how she helps her high-powered clients to reap the rewards of this powerful tool.

Whether the job market is robust or weak, virus-challenged or not, being a good networker is imperative. When we work with individual clients, more often than not they do not understand what networking actually means. Many think of it as a sleazy or a dirty endeavor focused on asking for favors. To be sure, when you ask someone you do not know to spare his or her valuable time with you, there is a level of goodwill that is being asked however, the real purpose is different and has generosity at its core.

That is why I want to change the term. My definition of networking is: cultivating current friendships and building new relationships for mutual benefit. Positive relationships include give-and-take. That means you have something to offer the person with whom you are talking, be it sharing your own experiences, information, advice, and network. You need to have the mindset that this is a two-way conversation that just by talking to another person, it is going to be mutually beneficial if you are being authentic.This is the opposite of selfishness.

Here is my laundry list of what networking is not:

  • Networking is not arrogance
  • Networking is not self-promotion or pretending to be someone you’re not
  • Networking is not collecting business cards or followers on Twitter, or friends on Facebook
  • Networking is not selling
  • Networking is not about a number’s game or throwing spaghetti against the wall
  • Networking is not just for senior executives, salespeople, and the gifted few
  • Networking is not just for extroverts
  • Networking is not only attending events or playing golf
  • Networking is not only used when you lose a job
  • Networking does not create instant connections
  • Networking is not only with people that you don’t know
  • Networking does not mean you have to be out every night
  • Networking is not brown-nosing

I’m promoting the idea of asking for advice and offering it when asked, which is about growth and advancement. People are attracted to learning, growth, and advancement. It is this subtle mind shift that I try to get across in sessions with clients. Instead of networking feeling inauthentic, what makes it authentic is discovering similar worldviews, similar aspirations, and similar values.

It does require forcing a new mindset. You have to literally stop and say, “I have the opportunity to share my learning with other people and these are people that I have things in common with. Perhaps we’re in business or philanthropy, or we’re in the same city, or in the same industry. We are inevitably having common problems and challenges that we deal with.” You really have to stop your amygdala from going to the fight-or-flight response, and use your executive function to remind yourself why people want to talk with you, the value you’re bringing, and that you’re not just taking, you’re a giver also.

I always suggest finding a higher purpose for the meeting, and during this time of health and economic challenges, this must be top of mind. A higher purpose of learning about people’s family, sharing the “why” of what drives each of you, and sharing your network with other people. As soon as you link in, or LinkedIn, with people, you’re sharing your network with other people, that’s of value to them and by you getting to know them a bit, you’re going to expand your network to them.

Instead of feeling needy and less than the people with whom you are networking, when seeking new opportunities you can reach out with a real sense of gratitude for having the time to connect with each person. That’s a big mind shift–it is all about reframing the activity of networking to one of generosity from one of selfishness.

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