Networking in the COVID-19 era

By Guest |  12-11-20 | 
 
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Morningstar invites thought leaders from the investment community to share their insights. Views expressed are personal and should not be construed as investment advice.

This post by Charlotte Beyer was originally published in CFA Institute’s Enterprising Investor.

Networking is among the most misunderstood business skills, and in the age of COVID-19, many may question its relevance. Networking remains, however, a vital tool today, one that can be both learned and honed.

Networking is connecting. Connecting is not discussing the food or the weather. Connecting means finding a place of common interest or shared curiosity. From there, the conversation can delve into deeper waters and address the more significant aspects of our lives, our careers, families, and values.

When a conversation is true networking, both participants become less guarded and rise above the superficial, shallow level. By revealing more of our unique personalities and belief systems and carefully gauging the reaction, we can then decide whether to move past this first conversation. This first foray into sharing ourselves can feel scary but reveals more. Almost everyone feels better when a more intimate human connection is made, when we see ourselves in another, when we feel empathy or affection toward the other.

Mistakes made all too often:

  • We ignore that networking is critical part of our careers and believe no one “needs” our communications / emails, etc.
  • We believe our reach-out to be a “bother” or that we’re being an “annoying pest.”
  • We don’t follow up after an introduction to a possible job lead when we don’t hear back for two weeks.
  • We don’t tell our mentor that we took a new internship after they introduced us to another company just weeks before.
  • We go radio silent with our LinkedIn network and later wonder why no one seems willing to help us in our job search.
  • We network only when we can get something for ourselves and become known as a “user.”
  • We don’t believe we have time to stay current on LinkedIn and don’t bother to post items or articles of mutual interest or like or comment on compelling posts from others in our network.

Notice a common thread in this list of missteps? Too little self-confidence. Our low self-esteem will trip us up every time. We need to find ways to build confidence in ourselves as likeable and capable professionals. I recommend reading self-help books like Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead or Dale Carnegie’s 1936(!) classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Without a genuine connection, people are forgettable.

So how do we establish that genuine connection?  
  • First, start with a question or comment we think the other person would be interested in and, importantly, about which we are also curious.
  • Examples for during a live conference or after the virtual one: What do you think of this conference so far? What has been memorable? How does it compare to others you’ve attended?
  • Examples for general networking: How long have you been in this industry? What do you see as the biggest threats to our industry? What about the biggest opportunities? How do you feel about the progress we’ve made? Or pick a more specific but relevant topic, such as fintech, artificial intelligence (AI), health care, racial justice, gender equity, philanthropy, venture capital, public education, etc. How do you feel the millennial generation is different? Who do you most respect in today’s thinking on XXX? Again, pick a more specific but relevant topic: Today’s paper had a story on XXX, did you see it? What did you think?
  • Examples for requests to see each other or speak again: This has been so interesting, might I contact you to see if we might talk again? I would like to hear more about your initiatives/work/project/views and also tell you more about where I am focused today and why. I could use your insights on a project I am doing now, could we speak soon? In the old pre-COVID-19 world, we might ask, May I give you my card or can we exchange cards?
  • We should always try to connect on LinkedIn and attach a note if we can. LinkedIn is invaluable in learning more about a person, refreshing our memory before our next meeting, and seeing the interests and posts of that person. It can offer great clues as to where our conversation might go next.
  • Balance the relationship so we are not just taking but are offering something of value. It could be as small as a short news story on a topic of mutual interest that was not widely circulated online.
  • Lastly, people spot “users” pretty quickly. If we exhibit genuine interest and our questions demonstrate that, we have a better chance of developing a more permanent connection.

Networking by socially distant email

We shouldn’t kid ourselves: It is difficult, if not impossible, to successfully network by email. The first email after a meeting may hold promise for the future relationship, but we can’t rely on email to solidify the connection. Here are some opening phrases that may ring hollow:

  • Hope you are well.
  • Just checking in.
  • Thought I would follow up.
  • How are you?

Without substantive content immediately after these overused phrases, the recipient will probably not read our email, much less reply. I call these empty emails, and few people are moved by such skimpy overtures. Instead, we should offer something new or newsworthy that we believe will intrigue the recipient. We might cite a news story, event, or opinion piece that is relevant to our industry.

Sustaining a connection

This requires both intention and relevance. An email with personal news or a request for a get-together on Zoom can maintain a relationship for a while. But nothing can replace the value of that face-to-face meeting. Without one at least once a year, the connection can become old and cold, like a dial tone on a rotary phone. Of course, in-person meetings are much more challenging these days. But their value is something to keep in mind for when we are able to meet and attend conferences in person again.

Relationships — even those on Zoom! — feed the soul

Friendships with colleagues or industry connections develop naturally, and they all begin with networking. Networking is like the first step on a steep stairway. No one makes it from the floor to the next landing in one grand leap. The same is true for developing relationships that are meaningful and fulfilling: They require us to take just one step at a time.

Discovering shared interests, finding common values, exchanging relevant information, investing time to learn about the other person, and being honest about our intention: These are all steps that help nurture relationships that will be of mutual value and last longer than any Zoom call.

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