Grow Your Network Exponentially By Doing This One Simple Thing

“Networking” is a dirty word to most of us. It can conjure up images of rooms filled with strangers engaging in endless small talk. And for introverts it can feel as if you’ve reached the seventh level of hell. But this anxiety-causing activity is critical to career success for anyone, but especially black women. In general, women tend to be cut out of the informal networks within their companies. Black women are even more isolated from these crucial informal networks that primarily contain white men.  When I was in business school I would dread corporate presentations or student mixer-type events. These settings take lots of preparation for me. What will I say? Will I sound remotely employable? How will I connect with my classmates in a deep meaningful way as they will make up the bulk of my network going forward? Ugh! I had a classmate who was a master at it. I would watch him, then in similar situations, I would ask myself what would he do. I mimicked what he did (as opposed to faking it). Then as I got more comfortable I put my own spin on it. Eventually, I reached a point where people were shocked to hear I’m shy and an introvert. I built a massive and deep network at one of my employers – a company that spanned the globe. I used this simple technique to get me over the emotional hurdle of networking, informational interviews.

What Is An Informational Interview?

An informational interview is exactly as it sounds. You go to meet with someone and learn about them. Most people if given an opportunity will gladly talk about themselves and what they do. You’re not there for a job, at least not yet. You can have multiple reasons for wanting to meet with this person. They may be in a position you aspire to; they are critical to the success of a project you’re working on; they have a fascinating story; or will have opportunities coming up. Primarily, it’s a great way to connect with another human being with which you share space.

Don’t Be Bob

Don’t only target the leadership level, remember there are people “below” them that are as, if not more, influential and well-connected. I can’t tell you how many times an individual dismissed me because of my title not knowing that I was a node, someone who is at the center of multiple network pathways. One of my favorite memories was when I was in a leadership development program. The white males pretty much dismissed me during a strategy case exercise. They assumed I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about because I wasn’t in the leadership rotation program they were in. One of them, who I will call Bob, was the ring-leader. I kept my cool as he would mansplain concepts to me. Whenever a senior leader would come I would speak to them, but the rotation guys were all over them. During lunch, Bob was going on and on about how he had a one-on-one set up with the CEO the following week. That’s a big deal. I get it. Here are some things Bob didn’t know though. First, I wrote the strategy case we were working on. I opted to remain anonymous so my boss presented it. Second, since I worked in Corporate Strategic Planning I already knew and worked with most of the senior leaders who came to speak (I was a node). I opted to stay back so others could have the opportunity to engage. They picked up on that and didn’t embarrass me too much when I would introduce myself to them. Third, I had completed the same rotation program four years prior to their arrival at the company. They didn’t ask, nor did they ask if I had an MBA from a prestigious business school. Fourth, and my favorite, when Bob finally had his meeting with the CEO it started late. Why? Because the CEO had called me to his office to work on changes to one of his presentations. We ran over. When I walked out of the CEO’s office Bob was sitting in the chair suited and booted with shock on his face which put satisfaction deep in my heart. The CEO apologized to Bob for being late and asked me to come back in 45 minutes to go over the changes and let Bob know his meeting would be cut short. The following week Bob invited me to lunch, but it was too late for him. The moral of the story is don’t be like Bob, network with everyone despite their title and assume nothing.

Yes! Network With White Men

I would like to say I was brilliant by engaging white men in my network-building, but the truth is they held and continue to hold the majority of the leadership positions. I needed to network and they were 90% of who I needed to network with. However, in my time of mentoring and advising others, I was surprised at how many black men and women not only didn’t want to network with white men (or women), they looked down on me for doing it. I wasn’t quite a sell-out to them, but maybe perceived as uppity or not wanting to hang out with black people. Huh?!?! Well, of course I don’t want to hang out with people who were trashing me behind my back. Regardless, my point, network with the people in key positions, even if they are white men. Looking back over my career I had both white and black sponsors, including white men who removed some of the biggest barriers to my success. This notion of being an “Uncle Tom” or “playing the game” has to stop. Everyone plays the game, some win, some lose. But those who don’t play, always lose. Lastly, don’t assume because he or she is white they don’t get it or won’t be interested in you.

How To Get An Informational Interview

First, be genuine. Refer back to Bob. There was no way I was going to have lunch with a guy who was blatantly trying to curry favor with me because he found out the CEO was my one-over manager. Not going to be able to do it. People can tell if you’re just trying to brown-nose them. Have a real reason for taking up this person’s time.

Second, ask them for time, typically 30 minutes. I used to be afraid to ask until I realized 99% of the time people say yes. Also, the best senior leaders understand this to be a part of their role and many hold time on their calendars for it. You may have to wait a few weeks or even a couple of months before you get in, but so what.

Third, ask people who you should meet with, then ask them to introduce you.

It really is that simple. Want an audience with your CEO, that is harder but not unachievable. The higher up the person, the more barriers. As you build your network, you will begin to see your degrees of separation shrink. I met the CEO because he was my one-over manager. But I met my manager two years before I started working for her through someone else (informational interview). When I started working for another VP, she remembered me and offered me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. So, stay in touch afterward.

Who Not To Meet With

In the process, you will run across people who look at this an opportunity for you to kiss the ring. These aren’t particularly good leaders. Real leaders aren’t interested in brown-nosers, they want people who are successful because of their grit, integrity and work ethic. If they aren’t critical to your success, maintain a neutral relationship. If they are critical to your success, decide how much you’re willing to put up with. But consider this, anyone who takes up your banner because of how much you kissed up to them is at high risk of dropping your banner should you piss them off or they tire of you, or the landscape suddenly changes. They are fickle at best and vindictive at worst. If you are seen as overly aligned with them when your peers aren’t, you risk their disdain and potential political damage when that person moves on.

Anyone who blows you off, decide how critical they are before pursuing them. Some might do it as a test, while others will do it because they are simply not interested. I once scheduled an informational interview via phone with a senior leader who I was introduced to by one of his peers and a former colleague of mine. He had a role open that I was qualified for and had the support to pursue. He didn’t show up for the first call. He sent me an email 24 hours later saying his other meeting ran late. I set up a second call, again, no show, no email or apology. I tried to coordinate through his administrative assistant both times, she told me to do it myself. I asked her to coordinate the third attempt, she said no. I let it go. This person had no interest in meeting with me. Remember, you are also evaluating if this is a person you would work with or for.

Best Practices For Conducting An Informational Interview

  1. Learn all you can about them beforehand. Ask others you know that know them how you should prepare. You don’t want to be asking questions you can get the answer to on your own. You only have 30 minutes.
  2. Start the meeting with an agenda. I have a three-point agenda – about me, about you, about us. My intro goes something like “Thanks for meeting with today. I want to be mindful of your time. I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and why I’m here today, I would love to hear more about your organization and your background, and then would like any advice you have as I blah blah blah. Does that sound good?”
  3. Have questions ready. For goodness sake, nothing drives me crazier than when I get into a meeting with someone and they want to “free form” it. You wanted to talk with me, but you don’t know why. I’m apt to sit there looking at you rather than try to salvage the meeting on your behalf.
  4. Connect with them. When you walk in take notice of their office, if that’s where you’re meeting. Did you attend the same school or share the same hobbies? Comment on that. If you know the same people bring that up, especially if that person has some influence over them. It’s a fine line between this and name-dropping. My go-to line is “we have someone in common, Liz from accounting and I attended a meeting together”.
  5. Be yourself. This goes back to being there for genuine reasons in the first place. Read your audience carefully though. If he/she tends to be more serious, cut out the comedy routine.
  6. End with a beginning. If this is someone to whom which you should stay connected ask how often they would be open to meeting with you. Ask them for a recommendation for someone else to speak with and ask them to introduce you.
  7. Follow up. Send them a quick handwritten note or email to thank them for their time. Also remind them of anything you decided to do (introductions, regular meetings, etc.). And then stay in touch thereafter.

By the way, don’t be like Bob here either. If you score a big time informational interview, don’t go blabbing about it to everyone. Chances are they won’t be impressed that you were bragging about meeting with them. The CEO later asked me if I knew Bob because we were in the same cohort of the development program. I said we met, but hadn’t spent much time together and I didn’t really have an opinion. Well, I had an opinion, but I figured Bob had just learned a lesson, no need for me to poison the well.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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