While we have more digital tools than we’ve ever had before, building networks and authentic professional relationships in many ways seems harder than it’s ever been. Can we find ways to connect to people without it feeling awkward, dirty, or embarrassingly self-serving?
In this workshop, part of our Quartz at Work (from home) event series, you’ll hear from experts on where to find people who can help you in your career, how to show that your outreach is genuine, and ways you can pay things forward once you’ve gotten that mentor, that job referral, or a foot in the door at an employer where other hopefuls might like to join you.
Click the large image above for the complete video replay. Below, we share highlights from the panel, starting with advice for early-career folks, mid-career industry switchers, senior professionals, and introverts, followed by a Quartz at Work reading list for further exploration of topics covered in the workshop.
Advice for networking at the start of your career
Before you reach out to someone online or in person, understand what exactly it is that you want to know from them, she advises. Is it something about their career path, or their current role, or the specific city where they work? “People respond to it when they feel there’s a genuine connection and authenticity to why [you’re] reaching out,” says Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, a site that connects employers with university students.
When you do reach out, be extremely clear and specific about what you are looking for. You might say, for example, “I would love 15 minutes to talk to you by phone about X, Y, and Z.” Allow the other person time to prepare. “Make the ask really easy so that the person receiving it doesn’t have to do a lot of work,” Cruzvergara says.
Finally, “always write a thank-you note,” she advises. “What could go wrong?” An email or LinkedIn message generally does the trick just as well as a handwritten note, she says.
Does networking get less scary the more senior you are in your career?
Not really. For that we can thank the Dunning-Kruger effect, says behavioral scientist Jon Levy, author of You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence (May 2021) and the founder and host of Influencers, a community of professionals he has built through a series of dinners where the guests do all of the cooking together.
“When we were at the beginning of our careers, we didn’t know anything, so the little information we had made us incredibly overconfident,” Levy says. “The further along we go in our careers, the more knowledge we have in the complexities of things, and then the less confident we are about things we have because we know how complex it is. So it’s completely natural when you’re a high-level executive, you might feel like you’re not an expert—but that’s only because you have knowledge of how big these issues are and how complex they are.”
That lack of confidence can actually help you when you reach out, because of another quirk of human behavior known as the pratfall effect: small blunders make us more likable. So if you bumble a bit on your Zoom call with someone you’ve asked to speak with you, relax. You also can take advantage of yet another cognitive bias known as the IKEA effect (pdf), which posits that the more effort we put into something (whether assembling furniture or advising someone in their career), the more invested we feel and the more we care about the outcome—meaning that people who spend time advising you will want to see you succeed.
So basically, you have no excuse not to put yourself on the line. “You’re nervous and uncomfortable about it? Good,” Levy says. “Do it anyway. People will like you more.”
How do I network with people in a field I might want to switch into?
See the advice for early-career folks, because in some ways you’re starting in the same place with your network—that is to say, you likely don’t have much of one yet. As you build one out, start with mid-level people in the new field that interests you. If you want to talk to high-level executives, work your way up first.
When you find people—through friends, on LinkedIn, at industry events—be prepared with two questions Cruzvergara suggests asking everyone you meet:
- Where do you go for news and information about your industry and what you do?
- Who else (i.e. a colleague or friend) would you recommend I speak to for more advice on breaking into this field?
Will it be weird to start networking with people as we come out of the pandemic?
Maybe. But Susan McPherson, the CEO of McPherson Strategies and author of The Lost Art of Connecting (March 2021), sees it as a terrific excuse to get in touch with people.
“We are in a purgatory right now. We have one foot out the door. … To me it is the perfect time to reach out—to not massive amounts of people but to people perhaps you’ve lost touch with, people that perhaps you’ve always wanted to connect with. We have a do-over opportunity before we get back into whatever normalcy looks like.”
But just like before, you need to prepare before you start reaching out. For starters, do your research. “The beautiful thing about the world we live in today is that you can find out so much about people in five minutes,” McPherson says.
Next, try to find out their preferred mode of communication. “Is it email? Is it the phone? Is it WhatsApp? Asking them a very specific question about how they want to receive [outreach] is a very gracious way” to start a conversation with someone, McPherson notes. Be cognizant, also, of what you can offer the other person, whether it’s a professional boost or just an enjoyable conversation.
Networking for introverts
Each of our panelists had a special message for introverts in the audience, for whom networking might feel like an especially challenging activity.
McPherson: Set your expectations and go into every large-group networking situation with your sights set on what she calls the power of three. That’s “the goal of meeting three people, sharing three things, and learning three things,” McPherson says. If you can do that, you’ve made good use of the time and are well on your way to building a network.
Cruzvergara: Introverts often struggle with what to say to other people, or fear that they will. The secret here is intelligent inquiry. “If you’re not good at asking questions, that is the skill that you should work on,” Cruzvergara says. “There’s a ton of businesses right now that have these question cards. If you are someone who struggles with questions, just buy yourself a pack. It is so worth it to just realize there are so many questions besides just ‘How are you doing?'” (McPherson’s book includes a similar list of conversation-starting questions.)
Levy: The reason the Influencers make a simple dinner together (burritos, usually) rather than being served a fancy meal is that the act of cooking helps even perfect strangers to form a connection. But maybe hosting 12 people to cook dinner at your place sounds intimidating. “If you’re really introverted, great!” Levy says. “Take two friends, go on a hike together. If you prefer knitting, great! Make a knitting circle. Decide you’re going to knit gloves for people and donate them.”
Even simpler, he says, you might suggest taking a walk with someone instead of the usual sit-down over coffee. The activity “can fill the gaps in the conversation so you don’t always feel pressured to talk” or even become a natural topic of conversation itself, Levy notes. “The key is to find something that you actually enjoy—because if you don’t actually enjoy doing it, you’re not going to want to keep doing it—and then do it at the scale that makes you feel comfortable.”
A Quartz at Work reading list on making professional connections
How to find meaningful mentorship without asking anyone to mentor you
Digital nomads show us how remote workers can find community
A third of the gender pay gap can be explained by schmoozing between men and their male bosses
Natasha Lyonne’s advice for making connections when you feel like an outsider