post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-1506,single-format-standard,select-theme-ver-5.2.1,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,menu-animation-underline,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-6.1,vc_responsive

Reimagining networking: tips for breaking down barriers and shifting your mindset

Lots of networking advice is given from the perspective of those who are already successful, or who assume that people will regularly come up and talk to you at events. But my experience has often been the opposite. Many of us have a very different experience of networking, because perhaps we don’t look like the type of person who can offer someone funding for their start-up, or provide senior contact introductions, or be a gateway to a new job. I’ve come to realise that to many people, I don’t look like either money or power.

So I wanted to share some tips that take into account the barriers that continue to exist for many of us, and the different situations you may find yourself networking in.

Acknowledge that you’re not going crazy

When I started networking at events 20-odd years ago, I thought I was doing it wrong. Why did I get ignored, while my counterparts had no such trouble? Why did things seem so easy for them and not for me?

Believe it or not, back then it took me a while to reach my epiphany. When I did I saw a sea of men who not only looked physically similar, but were from the same ‘tribe’ – they’d benefited from elite educations, enjoyed international holidays as kids, and wore the same expensive suits. Even if they didn’t already know one another, there was a natural camaraderie between them – “similarity breeds connection” (as outlined in the sociological report, ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks’), and kickstarts those ladder-climbing conversations and contacts.

I was outside this pool, and therefore outside of this apex of power. In theory I had a network, but I didn’t look like that network. As soon as I recognised this I felt better. It wasn’t me being useless at speaking to people or lacking some key personality trait or skillset – it was something going on outside of me. So I developed techniques to adapt.

Set yourself goals

I started going to events with the presumption that it was unlikely I’d have crowds of people making a beeline for me, and so I’d give myself goals to reach – like collecting a set number of business cards per event (I would aim high: usually 15). Techniques like this provide a useful framework to fall back on if you’re feeling nervous. I also started asking questions and making myself known. This wasn’t always successful – I was sometimes treated as an oddity, as someone who could be asked the inevitable “where are you from?” in a way that none of my white counterparts would be. So I learned to embrace my point of difference – I became louder than people expected me to be, or wittier than people expected me to be. To this day I consciously use terms and vocabulary that make sense to people who have had a certain educational background – it’s called code-switching. I’ve learned to approach people and engage them in conversations, and then once a certain level of comfort is established I tell them what I’m doing and what I need – seeking funds for a woman’s safe house, for example, was one of my first ever successful pitches.

Follow up

Make sure you follow up with people you’ve met and conversations you’ve had – ideally by connecting on LinkedIn and perhaps also via email. Send them a message to say how nice it was to meet them at the specific event you attended. Make it personal to them, rather than generic platitudes. I’m quite good at remembering details about people I’ve spoken to, but if you’re not then you can make notes to fall back on – these nuggets can prove useful in future.

Massage your network

Once you’ve made contact with people, don’t just sit back passively. Actively engage in their social media presence by reacting to posts and leaving comments where relevant. Email or message them on occasion to see how they’re doing, or how a particular project is progressing. Meet them for coffee. It doesn’t have to be transactional – focus on the human and professional connection foremost – but it may lead to something more in the future, particularly if you spend time developing this rapport.

Shift your mindset

Things got easier for me when I stopped thinking about ‘networking’ and started focusing on making connections, and developing two-way dialogues where help and advice could be proffered and exchanged. I think also, especially if you’ve grown up in a working class family, asking people for professional advice or ‘favours’ just isn’t the done thing. It requires a sense of entitlement that I just don’t possess. I was brought up having pride in standing on my own two feet and figuring things out myself. So that’s something else I’ve had to get over. Because there’s no shame in having these conversations.

Put yourself out there

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. This could be as simple as putting a call out for advice about intellectual property rights on LinkedIn and seeing what responses you get. Or it could be leveraging your connections by approaching a contact for an introduction to someone you know they’ve worked with before. Most people are genuinely willing to help if they’re asked – especially in this contemporary context where people have been primed to think a bit more consciously about their own privilege, and therefore may be more likely to share their knowledge and connections more freely. I’d encourage you to go through your ‘warm’ contacts first – those who already know you to some degree.

Embrace ‘the ask’

I used to find asking for what I needed really awkward. But ultimately if you want or need something, you must get used to asking for it directly. A technique that worked for me was separating my personal identity from my work identity. I found it was easier to ask for something on behalf of the organisation I was representing (and also less personal if someone said no) – I wasn’t asking for help myself, it was a request that would enable the organisation to do something positive. It takes practice, but as with anything the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Say ‘yes’ to events

Whether virtual or in-person, it’s always good to attend – and, preferably, speak at – industry events. If you’re simply attending, always engage with sessions by asking a question or making a comment. You’re there to learn but you’re also there to be seen. My heart used to beat furiously whenever I did this – I would sit with sweaty palms and an increasingly fast heart rate as I practised my question/comment in my head, before eventually gaining the courage to raise my hand. But over time this has become second nature. If you’re asked to deliver a session or form part of a panel at an event, say yes. And if you’re not asked, then do the approach yourself. It opens you up to a new group of professional contacts, and positions you as an expert in your field. It also builds up your ‘favours’ network, which could prove useful in the future.

Listen to what your friends have to say

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been speaking to friends and they’ve mentioned an interesting issue they’ve come up against at work, or a book they’ve read that connects to something I’ve been wrestling with on one of my projects. My intention behind these conversations was never to ‘network’, but they’ve unexpectedly shed light on things or exposed me to new thinking in ways that have often benefitted my working life. You could extend this several steps further and leverage your friendship network to find contacts for internships, workshops, consultants, or even jobs.

Use your social channels to (re)position yourself

Share your expertise on appropriate professional channels like LinkedIn. This creates a useful dialogue, and sparks connections and new contacts. It can also be a great way to pivot where your career is concerned. As I spoke about in a recent blog post, I was finding that people downgraded my professionalism and expertise when I told them I ran a charity. So instead I’ve started talking more about the entrepreneurial and tech-based sides of my experience. This has already led to new professional contacts and conversations.

Think beyond the traditional

There are different types of networking these days, and that to me is a huge benefit – it gives us more opportunity to meet and speak to people than the traditional ‘men’s clubs’ of large conferences and other industry events, which (certainly in the past) have excluded or disadvantaged many people.

Remember too that we work in an ecosystem, and everyone needs one another in some way – so try and shift your perspective to think about the value that you can add, and why those who have traditionally held power may really need you.

Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is currently writing her first book.


Featured image (top) by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

No Comments

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: