I freeze up at the word “networking.” Yup, although I work in communications – and one important part of my job is connecting clients to the right people and opportunities in order to share their stories and support their business goals – I still cringe at the term.
Chances are you were taught early on in your career that networking is vitally important. But that feels so transactional. The solution? Change your definition. That’s right – networking doesn’t have to be what you think. We live in a time when the future of work is more than a little murky. Studies show that by the year 2020, more than 40 percent of the American workforce — that’s 60 million people — will be self-employed. This is partly due to changing trends in technology, which make it easier than ever for people to work for themselves (like I do) or work remotely for large corporations. It also comes from those who want to buy into the gig economy. In this evolving landscape, simply collecting business cards and shaking hands at events is not enough to help you as you navigate your career in the years ahead.
Making new connections can lead you to new opportunities, but that shouldn’t be the only motivator. Instead, you need to build a community, or even multiple communities, to help you carve different paths for yourself. Here are three ways you can begin to create a community and forge genuine connections.
It’s hard to avoid professional chit-chat when you’re at any kind of work event but it’s genuinely really fun to hear about (almost) anything besides other people’s day jobs. For example, I’m a huge fan of food (whether that’s making new recipes or finding new places to eat), travel, and I love stalking dogs on Instagram. I might bring something up about one of these topics when meeting someone new. Maybe you’re a rabid Game of Thrones fan who can organize a viewing party, or you love soccer and want to start a league. Whatever it is, you’ll end up making genuine connections by finding hobbies and interests you have in common with other people.
Because I was running full-speed ahead for so long, I didn’t really consider what I was good at until a few years into my career. However, no matter what stage you’re at in your professional life, and regardless of whether you think what you’re doing is what you’ll do forever, you likely have the capacity to make thoughtful introductions and provide a unique expertise of your own. Start broadly. Create a roster of people you know that have skillsets different from yours, this way you can provide value by having people to recommend and helping create opportunities for others. Next, jot down where you can (and want to) be most valuable to others and share that with your peers so they can return the favor and recommend you for opportunities. You end up being a valuable asset to others, both by knowing the right people and being the one others are leaning on.
If you have a hunch that the area in which you can offer value will benefit a swatch of people, why not bring them together? Put yourself out there and host an event centered around a common question that will spur debate. Be sure to include those with different perspectives, being careful to invite those at different stages of their career and in diverse parts of an industry. By creating communities, you set yourself up to be a respected leader.
Start to develop an understanding of the things you’re really bad at. It’s hard to be vulnerable and admit that you’re struggling with something, which is why it’s much more common — and boring — for others to hear how great things are always going. Think of some things you need help with and feel free to ask for advice. It can pay to say what you need. About nine months ago when I was building my first website, for example, I decided to ask for help on the design, content and copy rather than putting off the task forever because I just couldn’t wrap my head around getting started. As long as you do more giving, or an equal amount of giving and taking, reaching out for support allows someone else to feel special and helpful.
In the end, networking doesn’t have to something to dread. If you thoughtfully build a community, you’re more likely to have fun with it and set yourself up with more options.