‘More than Coffee Chats and Emails’: Sustainable Networking Requires Effort, Authenticity

It’s a common refrain in the business world: Networking is the key to success. Building relationships is pivotal. It’s not what you know, but whom you know.

Yet successful networking goes far beyond handshakes and business card exchanges, noted speakers at the recent 14th Annual Wharton Women in Business Conference whose theme was “The Building Blocks of Success: From Asking to Acting.” The strongest connections develop through shared experiences, and cultivating a network requires thought, organization and attention. Relationships may not pay off for many years, panelists pointed out: To sustain them, they need to be real.

“One of the things that makes the real difference in building relationships that will advance you personally and professionally is being authentic in creating those relationships,” said Susan Greenwell, vice president of international government and industry relations at MetLife, during an afternoon panel discussion called “Building and Leveraging Effective Relationships in Business.“Too often, she said, people “approach relationship building as a task.”

A better approach: Learn to identify existing links you already have with people and build on those. “You need to build that relationship organically on something you have in common, some common connection,” she said. “I think it’s important not just to focus on people in positions of power, but to build authentic connections with people you meet throughout your career.”

Relationships may not pay off until years later, when both people have developed in their careers and moved up the ranks, according to Greenwell. For example, many of the top government officials she works with today are people she met earlier in her career, when they were in lower posts.

Panelist Shantha Ozgen, managing director in the equities division at Credit Suisse, noted that “the best relationships I have today are the people I started covering when I was a junior salesperson over 12 years ago.” When she began in her career, she was under three senior sales people who got all the best accounts. Her accounts were considered the lower ranked, less important relationships for the firm. “That did not deter me,” she said. “I had my own roster.”

She made efforts to get to know each contact personally, remembering details about their lives such as children’s birthdays. “It was those small things that made people remember who I was,” she said. She maintained the relationships regardless of whether their careers changed or they moved to another place. Now, in many instances, “they are running their own funds.”

The Importance of Being Political

Building long-term relationships doesn’t mean one should ignore the powerful people who can influence a career’s trajectory, cautioned panelist Bonnie Marcus, founder and principal of Women’s Success Coaching. “We need to be authentic, et cetera, but we need to make sure we understand who makes these decisions. I have learned a lot of lessons in my career, and one of them is the importance of being political.”

For Marcus, that lesson came when she was vying for a promotion. “I did everything, I thought, right,” she stated. “I was confident, I was competent, I had the numbers, I certainly increased the top line and the bottom line.” She even asked directly for the promotion and made sure her direct reports came forward to lobby on her behalf. “I still didn’t get the promotion. And the reason was, I didn’t work the politics,” she said. “I didn’t build a relationship with the right decision maker.”

During a panel discussion called”Start Now: Building a Career at a Fortune 500 Company,”Susan Keppelman offered one strategy for meeting top leaders. A senior associate at AES Corp., a global power company headquartered in Washington, D.C., Keppelman was one of five MBAs who started at the company around the same time.

One of the cohorts “had the brilliant idea that would we all collectively contact the CEO” and invite him to lunch, she recalled. He agreed. “And then we did it with the CFO and the COO and just kind of went down the line.” The group approach allowed her to get to know top leaders while forming a bond with the four other MBAs. She soon noticed that people in upper management recognized her and began to greet her by name in the hallway. The group approach “worked super-well,” she said.

Group lunches aren’t the only way Keppelman leveraged crowds for relationship-building. On business trips, she consistently prioritizes group activities over alone-time, forgoing gym workouts to go out with co-workers instead. The socializing gives her the chance to get to know the co-workers who might normally rush home to be with their families. “I feel that all the meaningful relationships I’ve formed with people have been on work trips,” she said. “Whenever I’m traveling, I’ve decided that whenever anything is happening, I’ll just join in.”

Looking for opportunities to work with new people is another way to forge a common connection and build long-lasting contacts, noted panelist Anne Hewitt Fischer, a senior manager of commercial trial development with Janssen Healthcare Innovation, an entrepreneurial team within Johnson & Johnson.

“Networking isn’t just coffee chats and phone calls and emails,” said Hewitt Fischer, who suggested that volunteering to work on a project could be a good way to make connections in a new group. At Johnson & Johnson, she participated in a rotation program, which allowed her to rotate through several teams in a short amount of time. 

“Sometimes people think that networking in a big company is going to get the job you want, but I’ hae found that actually working for the group that you want to be in is the strongest way to be on their list … when a job comes up,” she said. “You’re not only building a new network [and] building a new skill set, but you’re also showing that team your personality and your work product.”

Small Change, Big Impact

Another way to cultivate connections is to tap into an existing network and improve the relationships that already exist. Panelist Heather Aspras, a brand manager at GlaxoSmithKline, said she relies on her boss as a mentor to improve her relationships within the company. “In addition to doing my actual work, my boss and I often strategize about how to get me more visibility in the organization, how to help me navigate the matrix better.”

In one case, she and her boss were working on a new product launch that required him to run a series of meetings. They noticed that during those meetings, people would always direct questions to him, even though she had taken on many of the responsibilities. “So we decided that I would start leading the meetings,” Aspras said. “Now people are starting to look to me more. It’s a small change with a big impact.”

Another change that might have an impact on a woman’s network-building is a name change upon marriage, said Aspras, who decided not to change her name. “The name of your brand is important,” she said. “You don’t always know when people are going to see your name.”

Aspras suspects that this decision paid off when she applied for her current job. “I later found out that there were folks I had previously worked with at another company who are now at Glaxo, and they had said good things about me because they recognized my name on my resume. So if and when you get married, consider either not changing your name, or if you do, which is totally fine … keep your maiden name on [your resume], because some people know you by that name.”

Another tip for sustainable networking: It is not enough to be known; one must also be memorable. Panelist Sheetal Rajpal, a director of share management at PepsiCo, believes that passion is the key.

“People want to know you on a personal level. Don’t be all business all the time,” she said. “You’re passionate about something outside of work, and passion transcends everything…. Whenever I’m talking about something that I’m passionate about, people relate to that. It’s contagious, and they can’t help but love you… So take advantage of that. [It] will make you memorable, and that will help you in the long run.”

Panelist Jane DeFlorio, a managing director at Deutsche Bank in New York, agrees that being memorable is important. “You’ve got to find a thing that makes you different,” said DeFlorio, who spoke on the “Relationships”panel. “My hook around the office is that I wear the crazy outfits…. I become useful because I’m a little bit different, a little bit crazy, but it works…. I have found that being a touch different helps me stand out.”

But to maintain long-term relationships, remembering others is just as vital, said DeFlorio, who stressed the importance of organization while networking. “I take copious notes on people I meet,” she said. “Whether it’s a three hour client meeting or I’m at a dinner party and I’m sitting next to someone interesting whom I would like to get to know or develop a relationship going forward, I will send myself emails. I have found myself in the bathroom of restaurants after [meeting] with a client leaving myself voicemails about what we had talked about that night, because I’m not going to remember it the next day.”

DeFlorio takes notes on everything: ”Interests outside of work, the fact that he likes to skydive, the fact that she likes needlepoint…. Just by keeping notes on what people care about, you will constantly find excuses to be back in front of them.”

Above all, maintaining relationships is a social activity — and networking becomes the most sustainable when it is fun. “I look at my job as one big social exercise, quite frankly,” DeFlorio said. “I very much meld my personal and my business lives together.” Her number-one tip for building relationships — one she wishes she had learned earlier in life is to “learn how to throw a great party. If you really focus on building a social side … you bring people to you.”

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