For over a year now, adaptation has been the name of the game for everyone. That goes for pretty much all facets of life, but for those of us in relationship-based roles and industries, it has been particularly noticeable in terms of networking.
Opportunities to make connections with industry peers and others in the Chicago tech community became strictly virtual, and we’ve all had to work hard to establish and maintain relationships. (This was one of the main reasons that we launched our VPaaS package.)
Even now, as vaccine rollouts offer hope for a return to safe in-person events, it is clear that everyone will need to continue being flexible and creative for the foreseeable future to successfully make business connections and grow relationships.
To get some insights into how leaders in Chicago tech have been connecting during this past year, we talked with some members of the Chicago tech community with serious networking chops: Trisha Degg, Director of People at Provi; Cory Warfield, Founder and Chief Visionary Officer at Shedwool; Alida Miranda-Wolff, Founder and CEO of Ethos; and Claude Cimeus, Product Manager at ActiveCampaign. As it turns out, a lot of these tips for networking remotely are also evergreen tips for building relationships. Dive into their insights below. (The conversations have been lightly edited for readability.)
Before the pandemic, what were some of your go-to ways for making connections with people? How have you adapted your techniques to these times?
Trisha: Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time attending events in person and organically meeting new people (in line to get in, sitting by someone new during a presentation, getting introductions from friends I already knew). I also spent time getting involved in organizations I cared about. Volunteering tends to connect you to other like-minded people, who are often willing to help.
With the pandemic, most events that I would normally attend in person are being offered virtually, which means the organic meets are less likely to happen. I have to be more proactive in reaching out. For example, if I see someone in attendance with an interesting background, I reach out via LinkedIn. The pandemic has elevated my stalking skills. ;)
Cory: Engaging with people I wanted to know or grow business with via their content on social media; conversely, connecting with people who engaged with my content; and making intros/connections to build social capital and goodwill.
Alida: I’ve always approached networking as an opportunity to help others, so at the beginning of COVID, I turned my attention to how I could help. I created public programs designed as “reciprocity rings,” sessions where eight to 10 people would come together and name where they needed help and what help they could offer. I reconnected with people I hadn’t been seeing and met new people in the process, all in the name of spreading support.
I also started hosting office hours for folks who may need my help amid COVID-19, which I promoted through LinkedIn and Slack groups, especially the incredible DEI-focused Slack group The Brave Space [See the website for The Brave Space here].
Finally, I focused on meeting with the folks I already knew and deepening our relationships instead of directing my efforts towards meeting new people. One of the challenges of networking is that a “gotta catch ’em all” mentality can set in. The goal becomes meeting as many new people as you can fit in your schedule, but not cultivating real relationships with them over time. In the early stages of my career, I felt a great deal of insecurity about not having enough of a network, so I was always pushing myself to find new people to meet. But, that led to networking feeling transactional and inauthentic. As I’ve grown in my career and, frankly, simply know more people, I’ve found that I’m more interested in having a community than a network.
Claude: If I didn’t know someone, I would just email them or ask someone we both know for an introduction. Then we would meet up over coffee or dinner. For the people that I already know, I would check in monthly or every couple months over email or text, and try to grab a coffee at least once a quarter. The good thing pre-COVID is that I’d also usually have the chance to catch up with people at different tech events or award shows.
During COVID, not a whole lot has changed when it comes to making connections or keeping in touch, except now the meetings are over Zoom instead of in person.
What was it like to find a new job in this period and what out-of-the-box methods did you employ to make connections?
Trisha: Finding a new job during the pandemic was a roller coaster of an experience. I am lucky to have a very wide and helpful network, who were more than willing to offer calls, connections, introductions, advice, and words of encouragement. I did not apply for jobs but rather spent time on LinkedIn daily, sending messages to my connections list letting them know I was looking for a new opportunity and to keep me in mind if they heard of anything.
Does your networking technique differ depending on whom you’re trying to reach?
Trisha: Yes — each message was tailored to my relationship with them and how well they knew my background. I also changed the tone depending on whether they would be a decision-maker for a role I might be interested in or if I was looking for them to refer me to someone or a company.
Alida: In any networking situation, my mindset is that I would like to know whomever I am talking to a little more deeply and offer a resource, a connection, an idea, or even a word of encouragement. That’s it, no matter who is on the other side of the screen.
I think where the difference in approaches comes into play is when I am actually in the situation and start to learn about the person I am meeting. I ascribe to Rachel Botsman’s idea that trust is earned, rather than built, and so I try to understand how we can earn each other’s trust in a conversation. Depending on the situation, that may mean leading with knowledge and information, empathy and understanding, or authenticity and storytelling. Sometimes, it’s all three.
Mechanically, if I were trying to grow my network, I wouldn’t necessarily go to networking events or try a social club. I know these techniques work for many people, but they just don’t fit in with my preferences or style. I generally look to be directly connected to someone by folks I already have relationships with and then give them my full attention. If I really admire someone’s work, I may reach out cold to let them know. I love sending notes of appreciation to folks, even if I don’t expect a response.
Claude: No, not at all. I also usually refrain from using the word “networking.” I see it as relationship-building, which takes time. Networking tends to be transactional and quick and doesn’t have long-term benefits. However, investing in relationship-building compounds over time; it becomes more valuable the more you work at it.
What do you think networking will look like in the coming months? In a year?
Alida: I used to be the kind of person who would circulate in a room and might be called a “social butterfly,” but as COVID has worn on, I find that’s just not what I like to do anymore. What I am noticing is that I am not alone.
Many people in my life who identify as extroverts are noticing that the kind of social interaction they crave is more intimate, thoughtful, and individually driven. There is something so profoundly personal about looking at a close-up of someone’s face for 30 minutes on a screen. I think it brings up a desire to know more about one person instead of knowing many other people.
I wonder, too, if, in our more socially isolated working lives, other folks feel like I do — that networks aren’t quite the right term anymore, but instead, the need is for communities. There’s an inherent give and take, a sense of belonging, and a sense of solidarity that exists in a community that I just don’t associate with a network.
Claude: In a year, I think it will go back to the way it was pre-COVID, assuming most people get the vaccine and the virus is fully under control. I think people are longing for in-person connections and are tired of staring at Zoom all day.
What is your top tip for an established professional looking to make connections more effectively?
Trisha: I treated job searching like a job. I got up every morning, showered, dressed for the day, had my coffee, and started networking. I spent eight hours, four days per week (giving myself Fridays off!) working on my job search. I left no stone unturned and had a call with anyone who would talk to me.
Cory: Put yourselves out there and define and live your personal brand!
Alida: For an established professional looking to make connections more effectively, write down why you want to make connections, and with whom, before you ever seek them out. Once you have your intentions set, reach out to the people you already know and remind them a) what you do, b) why it matters to you, and c) what your intentions for meeting people are. From there, ask for their recommendations and introductions.
And how about for new job entrants into the workforce?
Trisha: Never burn a bridge — the connections you make today will be the network you need later.
Cory: Be incredibly deliberate and specific. Lay groundwork — don’t just apply for open roles. Also, articulate and elucidate your personal brand and stay on-trend; not “how things have always been done.” Make yourself stand out!
Alida: For a new job entrant, network with peers doing the same role at other companies. I can’t stress enough the importance of a peer community. Being able to talk to someone with a shared context who has an external perspective and can problem-solve, advise, and relate will offer you a support system that will help you seize opportunities and navigate challenges.
Claude: Focus on building relationships. Learn to follow up once a month, and make sure to have a 1–1 chat at least once a quarter. Know that LinkedIn connections aren’t relationships. Your calendar is a far better tell of how well connected you are than the number of LinkedIn connections you have. Relationships take time and real work — it’s an investment.
Thank you to Claude, Alida, Trisha, and Cory for sharing insights with us.
If you’re trying to build and strengthen relationships with clients, prospects, journalists, or other people who could elevate your business, 3Points can help. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.