Connecting a Contact’s Past to Your Future via Shared Interests
When you have an executive in mind you’d like to meet, here’s what you can do. First, learn all you can about them: background information, company biographies, interviews, and articles. Next, based on what you learn, you can apply a principle: Connect their past to your future. By your future, I mean a learning priority to help you and others, such as a skill you want to develop to advance your career and add value to people. By their past, I mean find something very specific in their experience that ties to your learning priority.
Any executive can participate in and benefit from a variety of shared activities, including sports teams, community service ventures, interdepartmental initiatives, voluntary associations, for-profit boards, cross-functional teams, and charitable foundations.
Shared activities bring together a cross-section of disparate individuals around a common point of interest, instead of connecting similar individuals with shared backgrounds. They let you observe your contacts in a wide range of situations. Participation in a shared activity allows for unscripted behaviors and natural responses to unexpected events — things that rarely show up during business lunches or office meetings, where impressions are managed and presentations are carefully rehearsed. Moreover, because these responses are spontaneous, they are more likely to be perceived as genuine, stable attributes of character that apply not only to the current activity but to other pursuits as well, including commercial endeavors. And because the opportunities for celebration and commiseration generate bonds of loyalty, these diverse individuals can enjoy close working relationships that they might not otherwise have formed.
If the person you’re networking with is senior to you, it can be hard to figure out what you can actually offer them or how to structure the conversation. You can’t give them a job or allocate budget to them or even introduce them to new people because their network is way more extensive than yours. But one way you can almost always help is by providing hands-on assistance. For instance, Heather Rothenberg, who is profiled in the book Reinventing You, made friends with powerful senior women in her industry when she volunteered to be the secretary of a professional association. It wasn’t really glamorous, taking meeting minutes or booking room reservations, but it provided an opportunity to connect with leaders in her field who later helped her land a job as soon as she finished graduate school.
Even if you feel like you don’t have anything to offer your contact, the odds are that there are others they care about whom you can help. One powerful executive was 30 years my senior and we had very little in common, but his son had just graduated from college and was interested in getting a job in marketing. So I offered to do an informational interview with him, and the executive was extremely grateful. You can also volunteer for charitable causes they support, whether it’s joining their table at a fundraiser or participating in a walkathon.
You may know a lot of podcasters and that may not be particularly relevant, until a senior executive at your company authors a book and is looking for opportunities to promote it. All of a sudden, your contacts become quite valuable.
Sometimes your perspective can be unique and valuable. If you’re dealing with senior leaders, often it’s difficult for them to get unfiltered access to on-the-ground perspectives about the organization. They may value your insights precisely because you’re not in a senior leadership rank, and they may be eager to hear what you have to say.
Even when you do not share an interest with someone, you can probably find something valuable to offer by thinking beyond the obvious. Of course, this isn’t always easy. We’ve found that people who feel powerless — because they are junior in their organizations, because they belong to a minority, or for other reasons — often believe they have too little to give and are therefore the least likely to engage in networking, even though they’re the ones who will probably derive the most benefit from it.
This problem was highlighted in two studies we conducted at a law firm in an effort to identify the importance of networking. The studies involved different groups of lawyers at different points in time. We found that senior people were typically much more comfortable networking than junior people were because of their greater power in the organization. This makes sense. When people believe they have a lot to offer others, such as wise advice, mentorship, access, and resources, networking feels easier and less selfish.
A controlled experiment confirmed this finding: People in whom we induced feelings of power found networking less repulsive and were more willing to do it than people assigned to a condition that made them feel powerless.
In thinking beyond the obvious, you might come to the realization that you have unique insights or knowledge that could be useful to those with whom you’re networking. For example, junior people are often better informed than their senior colleagues about generational trends and new markets and technologies. Claude Grunitzky, who was featured in Part 4 of this series, is a prime example. “I knew I could bring something to [magazine publisher Jefferson Hack], which was expertise in hip-hop,” he said. The relationship ended up being a two-way street.
When you think more about what you can give to others than what you can get from them, networking will seem less self-promotional and more selfless — and therefore more worthy of your time.