Kicking off a new year often inspires ideas to better ourselves and to increase the impact we are having in our careers. Promoted like a trendy diet or exercise regimen, networking tips and strategies have bombarded my inbox, with big promises about how networking in the right way can propel me to professional stardom.
As I reflected on my transition into the role of Tides CEO and my own goals for 2015, I realized that networking is low on my list of priorities for the New Year. I think the hype about career networks is just that, hype. So I’ve resolved to ignore the pressure to build my network, and instead focus on the types of relationships, values, and actions that really mattered when I needed them most.
Expert Esteem for Networking
My plan to screw networks may not be popular. A friend and colleague of mine from Stanford, Professor Jeff Pfeffer, co-authored a recent book on this subject, arguing that one’s networking ability “is crucial for getting things accomplished and making change inside organizations in both the public and private sector.” Who am I to disagree?
Who’ll Be There When You Reach Out?
Stepping up to lead Tides last year pushed me into new and challenging territory professionally. The pressures were more intense than business as usual, the learning curve was steep, and the bar of expectations was so high it sometimes felt like scaling a mountain in the Himalayas. In times of transition it’s more important than ever to lean on others for support, and there were times when I needed sage advice.
I had expected that my network of acquaintances and colleagues working across the world in diverse sectors would be instrumental to my success as CEO. But as I thought more deeply about what really mattered this past year, the view of networks as “crucial to getting things done” did not hold up. This is what I learned:
1) Honest and authentic relationships matter much, much more. During the years I worked at Stanford, I often would feel pressured by the need to network and say to myself, “I should go to this event to meet with Ms. Super-Connector. It would be good for my work.” I was subconsciously using job title and access to gauge the effort I would make to connect with a person, not the promise of an authentic relationship based on shared values or mutual interests. In hindsight, I spent too much time in places with people I did not like, and who did not like me. I put the idea of the “network” above the value of the relationship, and when meetings, referrals, or events were grounded in a “networking” mindset, connecting in an honest and authentic way often fell short.
These loose connections were not the ones that enriched my job transition or provided key insights for my new role. Instead, the people who responded on a moment’s notice to my emails and phone calls were men and women that I know in a real way and with whom I have mutual respect. When I needed wisdom about board transitions, or to expand my perspective on a particular issue, I was humbled by the number of smart, busy, over-extended people – investors, authors, executives, stay-at-home and retired colleagues alike – who responded to my questions at a moment’s notice and met with me over breakfast, for lunch or coffee to refine my thinking and share expertise, asking nothing in return.
2) Start with empathy. In business education there is a lot written about how to be an effective leader. Not surprisingly, a lot of this leadership advice relates to establishing power. One approach taught by world-renowned Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld is about establishing your power in relation to others, specifically how to “play high and play low.” In this highly viewed video, she provides advice about how to use your body language as a source of power, including tactics like looking away from the person that is talking to you, checking your phone, or staring down to appear disinterested or occupied with more important matters. I don’t know about you, but when I speak with someone exhibiting those behaviors, I think, “what a jerk!” Whether subconscious habits of the powerful or strategic acting by someone trying to appear important, this kind of dismissive, pompous behavior is repulsive.
In contrast, relationships that matter are based in empathy. When I start with empathy, make eye contact, and truly take the time to listen and get to know a person’s perspective, I learn so much. Each person provides a window into a lived experience that is different from my own, and the most valuable insights come from unexpected people, places and industries. They are rich, they are robust, they are meaningful. These are the ideas that shake up my assumptions, enrich my thinking, and expand my spectrum of possibilities to inform future decisions.
3) Time is precious, know when to move on. It’s vital to engage with folks who are different and to stretch into new and uncomfortable situations to cultivate empathy and build our mental flexibility and perspective. And striving to be empathetic, give our best, and be open to others doing the same takes time.
But because we all only have 24 hours in a day, I think we need to be cognizant of what drains us and what fills us. Don’t hold on to relationships and activities that are nothing but a drain, move on. Don’t waste your precious time with people who are jerks, and don’t endure “networking” events that zap your energy. Life is short, and so many authentic relationships could benefit from the scarce free time that you have.
Relationships and Empathy in 2015
As I look to 2015, I hope I can repay all those friends and colleagues who gave so much of themselves to me and to Tides’ future. Thank you, thank you, and thank you from the bottom of my heart. We still have a lot of work to do at Tides. I have a lot of work to do professionally and personally as the CEO, and I am grateful for the authentic, honest, and empathetic relationships that support me. Guiding my resolutions this New Year is this quote:
Watch your thoughts, they become words
Watch your words, they become actions
Watch your actions, they become your character
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny…
My New Year’s resolution is to prioritize relationships and empathy, for that is the destiny I want to create.
Note: Amanda Greco contributed to and edited this piece, a true partner.