Talentank: Build a strong network: How to network during a pandemic

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Back in 2015, Bill Gates warned participants at a TED Conference that the next big threat to humanity was going to be an epidemic. He also said that the world was not ready.  Gates was eerily accurate.  COVID-19 has become the greatest disruptor of the century.

The business world took one of the worst hits of the pandemic when the virus forced country after country to shut businesses to save lives.  In this impossible situation, our company – like many others – found ourselves with only two options: Adapt or die.  We adapted. We were lucky we had done our networking and were able to call upon our contacts for all kinds of help during those difficult long months in lockdown.

Networking is hard even in normal times.  In a pandemic it is daunting.  But there are still ways an individual or a business can connect with others.  The scope of your connection may be different and social distancing means there is no physical presence but that does not mean you cannot create meaningful connections in a pandemic.  The question is not whether you can still network in a pandemic, it’s whether you’re doing it right.  Networking in unusual circumstances calls for a different approach.  If you can get this approach right, you can grow a good network – even at a time when the people you are trying to connect with, are more frazzled and less tolerant.

 

How am I supposed to network in a pandemic?

The other day I had a Zoom catch-up with an associate. John is a freelance consultant and a networking devotee.  John is old school.  If he needs a favour from someone, he buys them coffees.  If he wants a contract, he plays golf. John had a question: How do you network in a pandemic?  How do you marry coffees and golf with social distancing?

It’s true, the normal route we take to network may have vanished.  In May last year, the ABC reported up to $35 billion and 92,000 jobs will be lost as a result of cancellations of major crowd and business events.  Melbourne, the worst-hit city in Australia, lost the AFL and Grand Prix in the space of weeks. Melbourne’s largest social event – the Melbourne Cup – was completed without fanfare.  The Australian Open has resumed this year but with strict quarantine laws and a subdued crowd.  For people like John, the corporate tent is where he networks.

I believe networking is still possible during a pandemic.  So long as it’s authentic and pure.

 

Here are some thoughts:

 

It’s giving not receiving.

You need a 180-degree change in your thinking. Before the pandemic, networking was a way to accumulate contacts that you can call upon when you need them.  We viewed networking as what we can receive from others. If you network during a pandemic hoping to be on the receiving end of the connection, you’re going to be disappointed. Be the giver not the receiver instead.

Janet approached me for help to look for a job several weeks ago.  She’d lost her job during the pandemic. An astute professional, Janet had an active LinkedIn account and an impressive list of business contacts that she could use for her job search.  “Don’t tell them you’ve lost your job yet”, I advised when she asked if she could tap into her contacts for employment.

If you start reaching out to your network now and the first thing you say is you want something from them, you’re not going to get anywhere.  Don’t forget that the person at the other end may also be going through a career or personal crisis so asking for what you want immediately will appear callous and insensitive to them.

Janet called her contacts.  She did not mention she was unemployed.  Instead, she asked about their wellbeing and their families.  In the course of one conversation with a business associate, she was asked about her situation. “It just came up as we were talking”, she said to me later that afternoon. “I mentioned that I was laid off from work and was actively looking, and they mentioned a position in their organisation that may suit me,” she added.

Networking during a pandemic is about building relationships and relationships are not one-way streets.  Make a list of possible things you can do for people in your network.  Perhaps it’s an introduction you can make to a supplier or a connection with an expert who can help their business.  Even small things can have large meanings so long as you are sincere.

 

Drop the usual salutations.

Do you hate the phrases: ‘How are you?’ and ‘Are you fine?’ as much as I do?  Unfortunately, that’s how most of us initiate a connection.  It’s the simplest way to start a conversation.  Until the pandemic.

Hardly anyone is fine these days.  The Australian Government has just announced a record $5.9 billion investment in mental health.  That’s the extent of the impact COVID-19 has on people. The pandemic has impacted women most significantly in terms of job loss, domestic violence and the stress of balancing family and career.  Bear this in mind when you start connecting with your networks during the pandemic.

Kindness is free.  It costs nothing but it means a lot. Just acknowledging how difficult things are now is often appreciated and it is a nice message you can send out to nearly anyone in your network.  That means, reaching out to hundreds, not just one individual you’ve got your sights on.

So, stop yourself the next time you start your outreach with a ‘Hope you are fine…’ Try saying: “I am reaching out to find out how you are coping…”

 

No face-to-face? No worries.

Video calls are almost as good as face-to-face these days.  We’ve all become zoom experts at work so why not use our new skills to build new and strengthen old relationships?

A Zoom connect to a contact is a professional call (even if you are good mates) so treat it as such.  Give yourself a few minutes to prepare before you zoom.  Make sure you got the technology working, the right lighting and an appropriate background.  Freshen up.  Don’t forget the mute button if you have to mute.

Is your LinkedIn up to date?

 

Be generous with your appreciation.

If someone has gone out of their way to help you, be generous about your appreciation.  Remember it’s not easy for them even in normal times to put in a recommendation or make an introduction.  In a pandemic, you don’t know how many extra hurdles they may have to overcome to help.   So be explicit with your gratitude before and after they have done you a favour.

 

“It’s not the coffee, John”.
 
John argued that the coffee was important. It allowed the person to take a break, get some fresh air, have a change of scene, drink a great cappuccino, and enjoy some stimulating conversation.
 
You’re right John – it’s the stimulating conversation. Coffees are just social niceties. It’s your thoughts, ideas and perhaps even the shared camaraderie, that they are really after. They can get all the other things quite easily on their own.
 
People who have been willing to talk to you before the pandemic, are still likely to want to talk to you during and after it. So, it’s okay to initiate a connection.  What’s different now is that people are more preoccupied. They may have less attention for leisurely coffee chatter. But they will still have time for you if you are genuine and sincere.
 
Asking how they are coping and being interested in what they have to say could be a start to a genuine friendship. Why not turn these difficult times into an opportunity to make more friends and build a stronger network?