Taking the Work Out of Networking
by Roy Bahat, Bloomberg Beta
When you think “tech company,” images of computer networks or server rooms might pop into your head. Your first thought wouldn’t be about human beings supporting each other, chatting over coffee, or making new friends. Yet one of the biggest open secrets in Silicon Valley is that the tech industry runs on personal networks more than it does on computer networks.
Whether or not you work in tech, this tends to be true. Many of us struggle with the same questions about the people in our professional lives: How do you choose who to work with when you barely know a person? How do you know who to trust? How do you nurture something real when your “friends” number in the thousands?
Our relationships matter. They are more than just runways we light up to land a new job, or close a sale. Relationships are what make us human, in a world where machines often outdo us. So: what could be better than becoming more expert in how to connect with one another?
More than any other industry I’ve seen—and I’ve worked in government, for nonprofits, at a Fortune 500 corporation, in universities, plus cofounding a little company, and now as a startup investor—Silicon Valley knows how to answer these people
questions. After a meeting at our venture capital fund, a visitor quipped, “For folks who invest in technology, you sure do talk a lot about people.”
The author of the book you’re now holding—a seasoned veteran of the tech industry—is therefore the perfect person to tell you how to build and keep your personal network. Based on her years at startups, big corporations, and long stints at both Google and Twitter, Karen Wickre has become an artisan of the Silicon Valley–style relationship building.
Karen’s keen eye for the tradecraft of building a relationship makes her, like me, a student of the details of how we meet one another, what we have in common. The venture capital fund I lead focuses on investing in the future of work; we obsess over these nuances. What’s the right subject line for an introduction email? (Pro tip: A one-word subject line like “Intro” will get lost in everyone else’s inbox.) When should you text someone versus sending them a DM? What’s the right order for several names in a calendar invitation?
As Karen will tell you, the tech world is famously fluid. There’s no harm and no foul in moving often between companies or roles. Because technologies themselves evolve so quickly, and because tech loves a good reinvention (and, yes, “disruption”), this constant motion makes people in tech rely on our connections—a network of allies, colleagues, and friends—more often and more deeply than we rely on our (current) employer.
This Silicon Valley way of building relationships is about giving: It’s about starting with what the other person needs, instead of what you want from them. It’s about planting seeds and getting to watch them bloom and outgrow you.
And networking in this way just feels more natural than pressing your business card into someone’s hands at a conference. It feels less slimy, less transactional, than the way most of us think of
“networking.” It’s the opposite of the smile-and-look-over-your-shoulder move you see at party after party.
Karen’s book encapsulates this networking-by-nurturing approach, and offers nugget after nugget on how to make it your own. In this paperback edition, Karen also helps us navigate life inside a company. She reminds us that—as companies get bigger and the tidy org chart’s boxes and lines blur—we should be just as giving to our colleagues as we are to customer prospect or “contacts.”
Even if you’re obligated to go to a crowded work to-do, Karen can show you how to survive trauma-free. She turns being the quiet person at the party into an engine for earnest empathy. Or relishing the fact that social media works beautifully for people who would rather avoid chitchat. (On the internet, nobody knows you’re an introvert.) And I respect how candid she is about her age and the accumulated value of being in this game for many years.
Karen also understands that if we’re going to honor our relationships, we need to take care in how we relate to people outside of our insular communities. We can either fall into the addictive traps that many social networks—including some where Karen has worked!—set for us, or we can fashion our own way of doing things. We can choose to start by giving, limiting our exposure to the less generous, and getting “curious before furious.”
Read this book to see that forging connections isn’t about you “getting out there,” or forcing yourself to eat a meal with a stranger when you’d rather have time to think, or breaking your phobia of starting a conversation. It’s about us: about seeing the best in each other and showing each other that we notice.
When Karen asked me to write a few words for the book you’re holding now, I was unsure which of us was doing which the favor. Was she giving to me, or me to her? And then I remembered, as Karen herself points out, favors can be mutual.
At the risk of making your eyes roll, this is a book about networking. And even so, you’ll see the best of how to be human at work on every page. Nothing in our evolutionary programming—rooted in small tribes, knowing a few people deeply—has prepared us for the modern way we connect with each other. Silicon Valley has figured this secret out. This book shares that secret with you.
San Francisco https://also.roybahat.com
Taking the Work Out of Networking
— 1 — Unleashing the Introvert’s Secret Power
The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.
The notion of networking as needing to be “on”—to shake every hand and capture every soul (for a minute, anyway)—is something we tend to think extroverts do well, and introverts—not so much. But when it comes to making connections, introverts may have the upper hand. You don’t have to change who you are or concoct a phony-feeling persona to meet people easily.
Let’s take a moment to review what “introvert” really means. In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist
Carl Jung developed his theory of psychological types, noting that “Each person seems to be energized more by either the external world (extraversion) or the internal world (introversion).” Much more recently, the Urban Dictionary built on that idea:
“Contrary to popular belief, not all introverts are shy. Some may have great social lives and love talking to their friends but just need some time to be alone to ‘recharge’ afterwards.”
That part about recharging is key. As Jung observed, extroverts typically gain energy from being in a crowd—a party, a game, concert, hopping from one gathering to another. Those of us at
the other end of the spectrum need quiet time to regroup, think, plan, and dream. I’m not alone, I’m sure, in mentally calculating how long it will be till I can get away from the crowd. No matter how lovely a time I’m having at a group event, I always look forward to being back home.
Another mark of the introvert is the ability to be comfortable being quiet, which is often misunderstood. As a thoughtful and introspective teenager, my goal was to observe and eavesdrop on adult conversations. When my parents had guests over, I was intrigued by the sotto voce remarks they would make later, speculating about the (unspoken) troubles they knew their friends were having. Nothing had been uttered at the table, of course, which led me to understand that human experiences run much deeper than polite company revealed. I began to feel like an anthropologist—the outsider studying the group with a cool eye, never fully joining in.
I’m convinced that all of these qualities, which introverts seem to share—feeling like an outsider, being an observer, curiosity about the stories and situations of others—inform how I’ve made my way through life. (
As one scholarly study put it, “An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak.”) I think this ability to observe and assess are some of my best assets, and maybe they’re yours, too. Whether you’re shy, humble, self-effacing, insecure, or simply hate the stereotype of networking, I want to encourage you to make the most of your own personal style in order to build your own brain trust—to start from where you are.
My long-held theory is that introverts (and other unassuming people) are well suited to building a strong web of connections because of some distinctive characteristics we share, such as these:
• We’re good at listening. When I meet someone for the first time, I make a game out of getting them to talk first—to
give up more personal information than I give. That may sound cold, but it gives me time to size them up, to assess my ability to trust them. If I get a good feeling, then I’ll open up (a little). This is a key tactic: ask questions first. You learn to sort out how much you want to invest in another person when they’re talking to (or at) you. It’s much more important to use your listening skills than to jump in to talk. And once you’ve listened, you will have options about where or how far to go in what you say.
• We’re keen observers. Even though feeling like an outsider might seem isolating, the fact that you don’t take up all the social space (as some of our extrovert friends can do) lets others reveal who they are as you take it all in. I have a lifelong habit of observing people—what can I deduce about them from a personal meeting or from sitting across from them on the subway? Who seems excitable, self-assured, angry, depressed—and why? When I meet someone, I tend to remember a few distinctive things about them—their interests, hometown, personal style, alma mater—that help me approach people right where they are. And this skill is so beneficial to connecting with someone else. You put yourself into the mind-set of another, which puts them at ease and helps you forge a meaningful encounter.
• We’re curious. When you feel like an outsider, you assume others have mastered life—connecting with people, navigating choices, pursuing a path—in ways you have not. Keen observers tend to put those observations to work. As a quiet kid, I was always curious about how other people navigated the world, and especially how they seemed to fit in, where I didn’t feel like I did. (A blessing, of sorts, about adulthood: you learn that very few people actually feel like they fit right.)
These abilities—listening, observing, being curious—are wonderful tools for connecting with people. And here’s the thing: none of them requires you to be in the limelight. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful career, of course.
For more than twenty years, Judy Wert has led her own executive recruiting firm in New York for companies in search of creative leadership. If you think a search consultant must be super-outgoing to succeed, meet Judy, who considers herself an introvert. She thinks of herself as a kind of “gentle provocateur” who plays a long game, professionally, out of necessity. Headhunters and recruiters must always meet new people to keep in mind for future client needs. She’s intentionally kept her firm small to employ a high-touch approach driven by her relationships across her global network.
A visual designer, Judy morphed her design tools into a new “medium of people,” which has made Wert&Co. “the story of people and conversations.” She has tracked these ongoing conversations through her proprietary custom-designed database—built long before LinkedIn or Salesforce—which is a repository for the thousands of people she’s met. It’s not unusual for her to follow up years later about an opportunity with an individual she met only once.
When I think of Judy, I think of someone whose work revolves around the qualities I’ve mentioned here: curiosity, observation, listening. She describes her process of matching people to positions as one of “strategic intuition”—a sensibility that captures the kind of calibration, internal and external, that introverts know very well. I admit to some bias here: I think introverts are more attuned to the steady thrum of needs, desires, secrets, and worries most people experience. That awareness informs our understanding of others, for the better.
It’s this notion that helps us think more roundly (and smartly) about who would be the right one for an open position, and more broadly, the right person to critique your resume; to be the executor of your will; the right friend with whom to enjoy the latest action movie or dive bar; the best brainstormer to develop your food truck idea—and a thousand other things. You already have a sense of who’d you want for some of these things, through the recommendations of friends or previous experiences. The same skill works when you apply it to a wider array of contacts that can help you with many of the choices there are to make throughout your career, and indeed throughout life.
The combination of introversion and observation provides a great gift: the art of sizing people up. We can sense the makeup of someone pretty quickly: are they needy, clueless, boastful, nervous? Do they evoke equilibrium, curiosity, good humor? Sensing such qualities means that you have a good grip on what to ask or expect of anyone you meet—and that’s a handy skill as you continue to build your network.
TRY IT OUT: Exercise Your Introvert Powers
Here are three exercises to warm you up to the idea of using your abilities to help grow your web of connections. Give them a try! I think you’ll find that people will feel good as a result of your effort, and you’ll learn things you can draw on later with them or others.
Ask questions first.
Next time you’re having coffee with someone you don’t know well (or at all—a coworker, friend of friend, fellow conference-goer), prompt them to tell you their story first. This works well by phone, too.
Your opening line can be as simple as:
“We’ll get to me, but first I would love to hear how you [like working at company X] or [have made your mark in X field or specialty or accomplishment]. ”
“I’m still thinking about that conference/speaker. What has stayed with you from that talk?”
Especially if you are trying to find work in their company or industry, follow that with an invitation that’s a question:
“How did you get into company X?”
“How long have you held job Y?”
“Do you enjoy profession Z?”
Put your curiosity to work.
Curiosity is a mental skill, something you activate whether or not you’re meeting in person. When you are having an informational meeting (including by phone or video chat) with someone from the company or field you’re interested in, do your homework to make the best use of their time and yours by jumping right to the heart of what you’re there to do. After initial pleasantries, for example, tailor your opening gambit to the kind of topic you’re pursuing:
“What I want to know is, how did you get the cat out of the chimney?!” (Referencing what you saw on their Instagram feed; an icebreaker that shows you’re paying attention to what they’re about.)
“What was it like to be at Google in the early years?” (You learned this from LinkedIn.)
“Do you enjoy writing regularly?” (You read their site, newsletter, or blog.)
Be a keen observer.
Where curiosity is largely mental, observation is more physical. It works best in person and has great value when you’re meeting someone new. Part of being a keen observer is how well you can put your new contact at ease (more often than guaranteeing a solid connection), and part of it is gathering your own sense of him or her.
Some ways to work observation into the conversation:
“Your glasses are so great—do you collect them?” (Clothing can be too personal to call out at a first meeting, but glasses or shoes are fairer to compliment.)
“How do you like your phone cover/battery/notepad/pen?” (Which accessories they keep nearby tells you a bit about them.)
Some things to consider during your conversation:
Are they ill at ease and fidgety, or do they seem relaxed and comfortable?
Are they strictly business, or do they reveal a bit about themselves, their preferences, or quirks?
Your observational powers are also very helpful in group meetings:
Ever notice the one person who is always the naysayer, or the interrupter?
The “meeting after the meeting” person who can only debrief later?
Who always has time for a friendly personal word, and who doesn’t?
What you observe gives you an extra sense of understanding of others, and that can make your connections work more smoothly—simply based on who they show you they are.