I caught up with Andrea Clarke recently who is the author of ‘Future Fit: How to Stay Relevant & Competitive in the Future of Work,’ which won the Australian Business Book of the Year 2019 and was a finalist in the London Business Book Awards 2020. I read a piece she had written in The Australian about Networking. In the article one of the pieces of advice was to pick up with connections that you had been to school with, along with much more, so I literally followed that advice and contacted Andrea after 25 years. I thought this article would be of interest to my HR network.
A year ago, an email hit my account which was also sent to a small group of trusted colleagues. All it said was ‘Just had a resignation from a mission-critical person. Need a sharp business development manager who can negotiate. Know anyone?’. I sure did. I responded instantly with three bullet points. I have your person. She is the most commercial female in this market, Generated $32m last year, National award winning young business leader. Will connect if you’re happy to proceed.’ This young female ended up in the job, a Chief Commercial Officer role in a rapidly growing national start-up.
It was such a simple moment, but a signal for what we can expect to happen with far greater frequency. For businesses in this new environment, finding and keeping great talent is hard, and so leaders are turning inward, to their own well-established and qualified networks to land the right people – and that includes our connections in recruitment who do this for a living. As we shift into a far looser and less structured work arena, there is a breakthrough concept here that will disproportionately advantage us through the 2020’s.
We’re losing our networks
One of the many downsides to working remotely is our ability to network. Research shows that our personal network reduced by 200 people, or 16% (Yale University; Social Networks and Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic, January 2021) – during the pandemic. Network shrinkage has serious consequences, especially for women who are already caving under the pressure of working and caring responsibilities like home-schooling. Weakening networks can make it hard to find a job and get promoted. As the Yale study says, it also has huge implications for organisations, leading to less creativity and more groupthink.
The New Networking
The ‘new networking’ will not be merely transactional or simply functional. It will be about working within our existing network to establish more meaningful connections and about reconnecting with ‘dormant ties’ – such as people with whom we went to school but perhaps have not spoken to for years, our long lost university mates or our early career colleagues. It will involve cultivating a tribe that is connected, competent and whose members we consider to be ‘active supporters’ of each other. “Show me your friend-of-a-friend – and I’ll show you your future,” says networking expert, David Burkus. And he’s right, this is a rule for networking that women need to pay close attention to. So how do we network in this increasingly digital age, where we may only be showing up to a few face-to-face events a year, instead of weekly? I have three ideas for you.
1. Four by Four
Every week in every month, call four people in your network. They may be close, they may have slipped off the radar a few years ago – but dial their number and have a good old-school chat with them on the phone. If you hear about someone landing a new job on LinkedIn, or being promoted – call and congratulate them. The same goes for news that isn’t so good. If you’ve ever lost your job, I bet you can sharply recall the people who called you to discuss it. Even if that person was fortunate enough to negotiate a redundancy, it rarely compensates for the loss of a gig they really liked. Making four calls a week won’t take long – but it will keep you linked in to your first, second and third degree connections. You never know what will come up in those unscheduled, no-agenda discussions.
2. If you’re in a room, work the room, meaningfully
For many companies, the hybrid working model means rotating staff into the office a few days a month, or even less, for team discussions and collaborating. See this as sacred time, sacred to both you and the people who are there. Value your time and theirs. Be ‘normal’ but strategic. Find out who’s going to be at work and seek out the RSVP list if possible. This is your opportunity to spark conversations, move projects along and enhance trust. It’s also a window where you can establish relationships with new mentors and sponsors; so while we need to be our candid selves, we also need to have devised some kind of sensible plan to enable us to make the very most of being with peers and managers face-to-face. We’re already seeing new waves of COVID-19 disrupting plans to return to the office, and we can expect this to continue. So yes, have a great time re-connecting with colleagues, but be highly aware that this time is finite, and you may go for months before needing to have your temperature taken and swiping in.
3. Connect vs Follow
How we go about things matters, it’s all part of how we establish and accelerate trust. Don’t connect with someone new, unless you have a reason. If you can’t find a reason to connect with someone, then the alternative is to ‘follow,’ a perfectly good way to stay up to date with their news. This social-media-minutiae has a key lesson for the 2020’s: have purpose to your exchanges. When you weigh into a conversation with thoughtful curiosity, chances are you may generate a meaningful connection. It’s the quality over quantity rule.
Regardless of whether you’re working or not, I challenge you to examine your existing circle and network with intention. Pick up the phone to a former colleague or ask a workmate for an introduction to someone you haven’t met. You have no idea how much power, influence and support you already have.
Andrea Clarke is the founder of Future Fit Leader Digital Program, which is designed to mobilise minds at scale. She is also the award-winning author of Future Fit: How to Stay Relevant & Competitive in the Future of Work – the 2nd edition is now in all good bookstores.