Networking in the Virtual Age

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

I will confess that the thought of networking used to intimidate me. Frankly I wasn’t even sure that I knew what the term meant. Earlier in my career I wondered why anyone would even want to “network” with me. Being an introvert made it even more difficult as it took a real effort to reach out. I remember someone once giving me a popular book on how to network called Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. It sat on my bookshelf with a bright orange cover and stared me down as I ate my lunch at my desk.

But now that I have been in the workforce for over 25 years, worked for a number of companies and institutions, and worked with all kinds of people, I would tell my younger self not to worry so much. In the end, networking is really just about supporting each other. And we could all use more of that.

Over the years my network has grown as I’ve added co-workers and colleagues, people I’ve volunteered with, friends, neighbors, and other interesting people that I’ve met along on the way. The secret, if you want to call it that, to building a strong professional network is the secret to much else in life — work hard, do a good job, and treat others with respect. If you are that type of person, others will want you in their networks, and those are the kind of people that you will want in yours.

The role of the Network

So why have a network? Most people think of a network as a way to land a job. That’s certainly one of the benefits. Those within your network can keep an eye out for openings that might be a good fit for you. Maybe someone in your network has a contact at a company that you are targeting and can connect you to that person. Or maybe members of your network will write you a letter of recommendation or serve as references.

But a network can assist in other ways too. Perhaps you are thinking of changing careers and you need some advice. Or it could be that you are thinking of applying to a job but want more information on the employer first. Here again your network can help.

Periodically people in my network reach out to me asking about openings in the institution where I work. Sometimes I know something about the position and am able to connect them. Other times I can’t help and I let them know that. I am never bothered by people reaching out. I am glad that they did.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

This brings me to one of the principle characteristics of a network — a network is circular. I may ask you for help but often I do not have something to offer in return. Rather, I pay it back to the next person who asks me for help, and hopefully they will do the same when they are asked. In this way, the energy and the support keep flowing and it all comes back around.

To younger people reading this article I say — don’t be afraid to reach out. Reach out to your teachers, professors, parents’ friends, and community members. These people will want to help a young person, just like you, who is starting his or her career and needs advice or that first door opened.

Same goes for those who have been in the workplace for a longer time — reach out. Networks support friends or colleagues who are displaced from the job market, looking to make a change, or attempting to return to the workforce. Not everyone is going to be able to help but that doesn’t mean the desire is not there. And the broader your network, the chances of connecting with someone who can help grow exponentially.

How to build and grow your Network

When I first started working, I had a Rolodex. For those who don’t rember a Rolodex, it’s a rotating device that holds paper cards with names and contact information. Now we have LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn is brilliant. I like to think that that the Rolodex is to LinkedIn as the rotary phone is to the iPhone. It opens up whole new ways of storing, accessing and using information to connect with others in ways my younger self could never have imagined.

If you are not on LinkedIn already, you should be. It’s easy to set up a page for yourself; the system walks you through the steps. (And with that great resume that you’ve already crafted, it’s largely a cut and paste exercise.)

Whether you are new to LinkedIn or you have been on it for years, just reach out. Look up your supervisors, colleagues, teachers and others that you know. Invite them to connect. Some may not accept but I bet the majority will. The system will also prompt you with the names of others that you may know. Reach out to your current co-workers too. Someday you or they may be in a different job and you’ll be glad you added them now.

Now here comes the “link” that makes you “linked in” (and its something that my old Rolodex could never do). LinkedIn allows you to look up others that you may want to connect with and it will tell you if any of your current connections are linked to that person. It is sophisticated enough to extend to three levels of connections.

Photo by Jackson Hendry on Unsplash

When you skip a rock, the impact sends ripples that roll across an entire pond. Similarly when you connect with just one person, you start those ripples into motion, reaching another person and then another. This linkage exponentially expands your reach. And the more people that you connect with, the more ripples you create.

And while LinkedIn is a wonderful platform, it is certainly not the only platform. Alumni networks are also great resources. Whether you are a college student or a graduate, your college likely offers a platform to engage with other alumni. Professional associations can also be useful, bringing you together with others who share your interests. These associations can help you grow your skills, expand your connections, and broaden your reach.

Networking in the Virtual Age

So what is different about networking in the virtual age? Well just about everything is different — and it’s incredible. Once we are finally able to cease social distancing and eat lunch together again, that will undoubtedly be great. But having a face-to-face networking lunch is far less important than it used to be. And with networks stretching across states, and even spanning countries, it can be downright impossible.

As we are all spending more time at home these days, this is actually a perfect opportunity to reach out, both to those that you used to see regularly but also to those that you wish to reconnect with. Send your colleagues and your contacts a text or an email. Message them on LinkedIn or another platform. Follow them on social media, and maybe put something out there yourself as well. And while the virtual age offers so many alternatives, an old-fashioned phone call still holds its own sometimes.

Like many good things in life, developing a strong network takes time and effort, but the rewards are high. Reach out. Stay in touch. Pay it back. That’s how to keep building the momentum. Send out your ripples until they become waves. You’ll be amazed at how far they will carry you.

Mary O’Connell is a professional with 25+ years of work experience in public and private companies, for-profits and not-for-profits, global and domestic.

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