By Yvonne Milosevic
Even if the pandemic hasn’t put your job in jeopardy, growing your professional network is still a vital activity right now. But what’s the best way to go about it in an era of virtual everything? Building connections requires out-of-the-box thinking, says Noah Askin, INSEAD assistant professor of organizational behavior.
“There’s no magic bullet…Habit formation and goals are going to be essential here,” Askin told participants in the recent INSEAD webinar, Networking in Our New Reality. “This is not something you can now leave to chance.”
Start by assessing your current network to determine whether it consists mainly of strong yet homogenous contacts. As our post on relaunching after a career gap explained, strong ties give you “redundant knowledge” because it comes from people doing the same things you do.
Instead, Askin suggests we become the bridge between unconnected groups or individuals. If or when you need to look for a new job, Askin says you’ll likely find better intel from your weak ties than your closest connections.
Network Building 2.0
Does the traditional idea of networking make you feel icky? Askin recommends reframing it as “relationship building” instead. Focus on cultivating real relationships with people you admire. Curious people are good at forming new ties and at giving and taking value, Askin notes.
When curiosity is the motivator for meeting someone new, it comes off as authentic—not gross and self-serving. “They don’t think of establishing new ties as, ‘Oh, I’m going to network with this person.’ They’re like, ‘Hmm, who is this individual, I’d like to know more about him or her’.”
When you meet someone, try to learn more about their goals or challenges. Instead of pitching yourself, find ways to meet their needs, even if they’re not asking for anything right now.
Askin’s Guide to Networking in the Age of Zoom
Step 1: Set Your Goals
Visualize where you want to be in the next one to three years. Identify the people (or types of people) you’ll need to connect with to make those goals happen.
Step 2: Create a List of Contacts
Askin recommends you draft a list of 50 to 100 contacts. “What we’re talking about here is not necessarily about establishing totally new ties, although they can be in there. It’s about people that you know reasonably well – contact them three to four times a year,” Askin explains. “It’s about strengthening weak ties – keep them updated on what you’re doing.”
Don’t be afraid to take a long shot on someone you find fascinating, adds Askin. Seek out an introduction from a mutual contact if you can. But, he says, cold calling and emailing are also worth a try.
Step 3: Start Reaching Out on the Regular
You can apply the Kaizen philosophy of consistent, gradual change to networking, too. As Askin puts it: “Think of it like going to the gym. If you think, ‘I just need to psych myself up to do this more often,’ you’re never going to do it. You’re only going to change your attitude by changing your behavior first. Repetition is far more powerful than willpower.”
So, if you connect with two or three people a week, you will have added 50 new people to your network a year later. But do your homework before reaching out.
“Most people have an array of information about them online, whether it’s LinkedIn or a social media site. Use that to your advantage. Find out who these people are,” Askin advises. “And be prepared with your own story. ‘I’m interested in x and y; you’re somebody who focuses on x and y and would be really helpful to me.’”
Virtual Office Hours
Finally, Askin has one other tip tailor-made for the era of Zoom. Since face-to-face meetings are now rare, he’s come up with a novel way to expand one’s network: have virtual “office hours.” Get the word out via LinkedIn or other social media that you’ll host 15-minute Zoom meetings to exchange ideas and give advice.
Make sure to state your areas of interest or expertise to invite relevant conversations, Askin advises. Also, interested participants should give you two sentences on why they’re reaching out to you.
For Askin, these virtual office hours have been a huge hit. They’ve also led to conversations with people from all over the world—some of whom he had no prior connection to.
“You’d be amazed at the reach that you can get if you get enough people that like it and start to share it with their networks – all of a sudden, you expand your network,” Askin explains. “I guarantee there are people around the world who would have an interest in talking to you, whoever you are, about your experience, your background, your expertise.”