By: Chelsea Harrison, VP of Parachute at KidKare by MinuteMenu
Let me start by being very honest: I have always hated networking. I have no problem running meetings, presenting to a room full of people, or even striking up a conversation in the kitchen with a passing co-worker, but throw me in a noisy bar or conference hall for a Networking Happy Hour, and I suddenly clam up.
I’ve always wanted to be that person who can start a conversation with any stranger and, by the end of it, exchange addresses so we can send each other Christmas cards. To be one of those people who ooze charisma and can charm their way across a crowded room. Throughout my life and career, I have had numerous friends and coworkers with this superpower. I’m always in awe of their ability to get free upgrades at the rental car counter or end up in the middle of a group of impressive professionals running out of business cards to give out.
But I am a self-proclaimed “Extroverted Introvert” who has been working soft-skills-heavy jobs for over a decade. My social battery has exactly enough juice to get me through my weekly meetings and maybe a friend hangout or two. Anything more than that, and suddenly, it feels like I’m walking in quicksand.
We live in a world, specifically an industry, where if you’re not tired, it feels like you’re probably not doing it right. As Product Managers, most of our job is communicating in some form or another. And in a “Post-pandemic” world, we’re all still recovering from the required changes to how we socialize and recalibrating to what socializing means now.
When you add all of that together, I would hazard a guess that I am not alone when it comes to my feelings about networking. In fact, even many people I’ve known to have endless supplies of extroverted energy are starting to slow down. So in a world where meeting strangers feels like a lot of work, how do we continue to network?
What is Networking, really?
I, like most Product Managers I know, didn’t have a straightforward trajectory. I started in customer support, sort of stumbled into a business analyst role and then found myself doing Product Management somewhat by accident. When I finally figured out what I wanted, which was, in fact, continuing in Product, the number one piece of advice I heard over and over again was: Network, Network, Network!
If I wanted to get anywhere in my career, that meant expanding my network. When I asked various PMs what that meant, I was told:
- Make sure you have 500+ LinkedIn Connections
- Go to every networking event you can
- Make friends across all of the organizations at the company
None of that is terrible advice; in fact, I would probably still recommend all of this to someone who is just starting out in their PM career. However, what no one told me is that networking can look different for everyone and will continue to evolve across different stages of your career.
Here are three things I had to learn for myself:
1. The Power of Organic Growth
When I started my PM career, I felt doomed. I tried to go to a couple of different types of professional mixers and networking events. Either I ended up only talking to the people I came with, or I felt like I was that weird, quiet person in the corner. I heard once that if you want to start a conversation, you should stand by the food table. I would try to casually engage someone on the size of the spread or quality of the cheese. Often, I would get a polite nod or small chuckle; however, this rarely led to new job opportunities for me.
That’s what networking is for, right? To get ahead, you always need to think ahead. Networking is so you can have a long list of potential contacts to reach out to when you decide it’s time for a new job. At least, that’s what I thought until about the time I became a Senior PM.
I suddenly realized that while I still didn’t excel at networking with strangers, my career hadn’t suffered. In fact, when I looked back on it, I realized that I had made some of the riskiest career moves before I even had a LinkedIn. I looked back on my career trajectory and realized that all along, I had been networking without even realizing it!
While I was advised to make relationships across different organizations, it really wasn’t hard to make connections with people I was working on projects with or engaging with in my favorite extracurricular work Slack rooms. LinkedIn is far less intimidating when you’re connecting with people you’ve already been sharing dog memes with. And working at a big company also meant that as my co-workers found new opportunities, my network suddenly included hundreds of new companies.
I realized that without connecting with many different strangers, my network was expanding itself naturally. I also realized that as I moved from my 20s to my 30s, most of my closest friends were people I once worked with.
Today networking is starting to look different to me. Most of the noisy happy hours I’m going to are the ones with my friends or my team, and I’m excited about them. I’ve been able to help some friends get jobs. I have mentors who have happily helped me prep for interviews and resources I’ve been able to text to help me overcome obstacles I knew they had already conquered.
While it’s important to get outside your bubble when you have both the opportunity and bandwidth to do so, it’s equally important to look inside your bubble and realize the power of your organic connections.
2. Know your strengths
Some folks love meeting new people and going to different events. A lot of them have even found a lot of professional success in operating that way. I am not one of those people, and I have realized that’s ok. The best way to network is to play to your strengths.
For me, that looks like building strong relationships with the people around me. For someone else, it might look like engaging in online communities. The point is there’s no right way to build a network as long as it works for you.
When you think about how you build interpersonal relationships, are you the type of person who has a lot of friends and acquaintances or the type of person who has a few close friends? Either way, your network can still reflect that.
Maybe you don’t know a million people, but the 50 people you do know would bend over backward to give you a strong reference or to help you get your foot in the door. Maybe you don’t feel like you have many close advocates in your network, but you have 300 people you feel comfortable asking to grab a coffee with or to give advice on a company’s very specific interview process. No matter what your network looks like, make sure it reflects how you operate and make it work for you.
3. Take a Risk – Whatever that Means for You
While it’s important to take stock of the people and opportunities you have around you, if you never take a risk, you’ll never grow. While I personally am still not a huge fan of attending professional mixers and happy hours, I still try to make an effort to go to the occasional event. I know now that Networking Events are not the only way to network, but they’re still a great way to meet people I probably would have never met otherwise or reconnect with someone I haven’t talked to in a while.
If you’re not great at conversing about charcuterie, then don’t. The most success I’ve had from happy hours with strangers has come from looking around the room for the other quiet people. You might not have enough courage to insert yourself in a circle of animated people, but if you pay attention, you’ll probably make eye contact with someone else who is struggling to make conversation. Smile, say hello. There’s a high likelihood that they will be just as relieved as you are to make a connection. When the conversation ends, try it again with someone else! If that doesn’t work, it’s always ok to go home.
If in-person events with strangers are just never going to be your thing, that’s also okay! What sounds like a surmountable challenge to you? Maybe start by talking to someone on a team you work with. If you’re still in the office, chat with whoever is also filling up their coffee in the kitchen. If you’re at home, join a new fun Slack channel. Wherever you’re at, you can always expand your network by just taking a small risk.
You’re Further Than You Think
You may have noticed when describing my career path, I used words like “stumbled” and “accident.” Early on, it felt like my career was happening to me, not like I was the one making it happen. But in reality, I moved from a support role at one company to a more technical support role at another company because a guy I used to sit next to in the office told me about the position. I moved from that technical support role to my business analyst role based on a conversation over a beer in the kitchen on a random Friday.
There are endless reading materials and seminars on how to be a powerful networker. For some people, those tips and tricks are exactly what they need to feel confident in their ability to meet new people and make the moves they want to make in their careers. But if you’ve successfully gotten a job, you’re probably further into your networking journey than you’re giving yourself credit for.
Look around you. Who do you interact with regularly, at work and in your personal life, that you admire? They’re a part of your network.
What are your strengths? Where do you excel in your life? That’s how you build your network and what it should look like.
What’s something that is a little bit scary but you’re willing to do? That’s how you grow your network.
Networking doesn’t have to be hard. Chances are, you’re already on your way to building the community you need for success.