The business world will tell you to “network” and “connect” with “the right people.” In my experience, networking and connecting aren’t enough. They denote superficiality. It’s more satisfying, and more rewarding, to cultivate authentic relationships.
“Cultivate” is an intentional word choice. It’s a verb typically used in the gardening or farming context, less typically used to describe the acquisition of a new skill. Developing professional relationships is like growing a rose garden. Timing, chemistry, environment, commitment, and energy are critical factors to success. And patience is required.
Also, I’m not a fan of the whole “right people” concept. I understand that busy people have to be judicious with their time. But be aware that “the right people” aren’t always the ones who are the most powerful or wealthiest players in your industry. Some of my best, most fruitful relationships have been with a restaurant manager who gave me a job when I needed one during law school, a daycare teacher who connected me to a great moms group, and an executive assistant who always puts my calls through. It has taken time and effort to prove myself worthy of these individuals’ time; and they know how grateful I am. It doesn’t matter if my salary or title exceeds theirs. They enrich me, and I do what I can to enrich them. We tend to each other.
I count my relationship repertoire as one of my biggest achievements. The relationships I’ve cultivated over time are more than a single bed of roses- they’re an entire botanical garden, filled with a beautiful, diverse array of blooms. My relationships have made me a better professional, mother, and wife. They’ve made me a better human being. And I don’t think I’m uniquely qualified to have such great relationships. I think almost anyone is capable of growing a blooming garden. Here are a few of my tried and true cultivation tips:
1) When you first meet someone, ask interesting questions and really listen to the answers. Where did you grow up? How long have you been living in (your current city)? What do you like to do for fun? Did you always want to be a (job)?
2) Ask good follow-up questions, i.e. have a real conversation. I cringe when I see people asking a couple superficial questions then moving on to the next target.
3) Send a follow-up note to the person after meeting him. Try to find a natural way to incorporate a fun fact from your conversation into the note, ideally one that connects you, such as your shared love for soccer.
4) Be sticky. Subscribe to alerts about your new contact and/or her company. Invite her to events that might interest her. Ask her for advice when appropriate. Congratulate her if you see or hear good news about her or her company.
Once your relationship blooms, remember to water and nourish it. You won’t be able to control the weather, so every day in your relationship may not be sunny. But, if the relationship is strong enough, its roots will hold firm no matter the forecast.
A good read about networking: Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks that Can Transform Your Life and Career by David Burkus