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How To Network Effectively—Even When It Feels Weird

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

“Relationships are a form of wealth that is under your control. You can create this wealth even if you start with nothing. And once you create it, no one can take it away,” asserts author and executive coach Michael Melcher in the introduction to his excellent and practical new book, Your Invisible Network: How to Create, Maintain, and Leverage the Relationships That Will Transform Your Career. Melcher (who is a friend and colleague) starts with this central premise, and what follows is a powerful, entertaining, and easy-to-implement “investment guide” for building relationship wealth. As someone who values my friends dearly and spends a lot of time maintaining my relationships, I was struck by the metaphor of wealth and investing. At first I was a bit taken aback—as if this comparison might taint the essential warmth and human-ness of relationships. But then I reflected on the truth at its core. I do place a high value on connections and feel richly rewarded by my friendships. And both my personal life and my career have proven time and again that those who are attentive to the people in their lives and invest wisely and consistently will build strong, authentic, rich, and mutually beneficial relationships.

In my executive coaching practice, I often work with clients who need to build stronger relationships to be successful in their jobs. They include functional leaders in companies whose success depends on having strong, trusting, collaborative relationships with cross-functional peers; early career professionals seeking to cultivate relationships with managers, mentors, and sponsors; law firm partners who must develop a durable and growing portfolio of client relationships; and people at all stages of their careers contemplating a change and seeking information and assistance. For some, it comes naturally to connect; others struggle mightily to make personal connections with colleagues and professional contacts. But whether they find it easy or hard, many express a certain discomfort, distaste, or even squeamishness about the process of “networking” or intentional, systematic relationship building.

They typically express the following discomforts:

  • Feeling awkward or shy
  • Fear of rejection
  • Worry that they will annoy other people
  • Fear of becoming obligated
  • Reluctance to seem sales-y, slimy, or self-promotional
  • Feeling inauthentic

But here’s the thing, as Melcher says, “Your feelings don’t matter. Don’t be in awe of your feelings. Feel as weird as you want. You are still able to make things happen even while feeling weird.”

Yes! Too many people let their feelings of discomfort stop them from reaching out, or from following up after they reach out, or from asking clearly and directly for what they want from other people. They equate trying something new and uncomfortable with being “inauthentic.” And authenticity (or perceived authenticity) has become a highly valued leadership trait, so many allow themselves to be blocked by this discomfort and they either don’t invest or they radically under-invest. But, as London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra notes in “The Authenticity Paradox,” only doing things that feel comfortable and natural is not authenticity; it is actually inflexibility and represents an overly fixed sense of one’s identity that ultimately inhibits growth.

Wait. What? Feelings don’t matter? Don’t get me wrong—feelings (yours and other people’s) do matter in relationships, and ultimately, feelings of connection, respect, empathy, shared purpose, and care are what bind us together. But Melcher’s approach is that you have to push past the initial feeling of “weirdness,” and be willing to tolerate it, in order to achieve the payoff. In fact, embracing feelings weirdness or discomfort can help you grow. Borrowing from David Bradford and Carole Robbins’s book, Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and Colleagues, Melcher recommends taking a “15 percent risk” outside your comfort zone, which might feel “weird” but is actually not overly risky, and provides you the opportunity to stretch and learn.

Your Invisible Network provides a series of exercises and actions that will help you do just that. It breaks down the elements of relationships, from making or responding to an opening bid to “how to talk about yourself without being gross.” Melcher also the need to show vulnerability (often closely associated with authenticity, as championed by Brené Brown and others) in order to connect deeply. “Showing vulnerability is not humble bragging… not false modesty deployed to be socially accepted. It’s authentically sharing doubts, setbacks, disappointments, uncertainty, and all the things that make us less perfect but more human.” The author’s own humanity, demonstrated through examples from his life and from his clients, illustrates both successes and failures. He shares the moving success story of building a strong relationship with the Midwestern surrogate who gave birth to his twin sons and also the rueful admission that he missed an opportunity when, early in his career, he breezily turned down his boss’s invitation to the opera. There are also inspiring stories of immigrants, including a Chinese woman who transformed her career, racking up a whopping 435 networking meetings over ten years, and a Hungarian student who worked to overcome his cynicism and cultivate openness taking risks that ultimately landed him in Silicon Valley. And yes, there’s a section devoted to what we can learn from “Emily in Paris,” whose blend of blithe confidence and professional blunders offers both inspiration and a cautionary tale.

In addition to seeking benefit from others, it is also important to look for opportunities to be a benefactor to others. Being a benefactor can take many forms, from making an introduction to offering career advice to helping someone find a great dentist or an hidden gem of a preschool for their toddler. Whatever side of the benefit equation you are on, Melcher suggests you cultivate attitudes of curiositygenerosity, and prosperity.

If investing in relationships seems overwhelming, relax. It can be done in “20 minutes a day,” through a wide variety of specific actions, such as:

  • Mapping your network, including the numerous and valuable “weak ties,” who are the largest and most potentially valuable part of your network
  • Mastering the art of the “ping,” an outreach that doesn’t require a response but helps maintain a connection
  • Constructing a “cold call” email to someone you admire
  • Making a clear request for help that the recipient can accept, reject or counter-offer

There’s even a relationship bingo card that will help you be intentional about how you spend your time to build out a diverse portfolio.

What should you expect from your efforts? Melcher’s 30:50:20 rate of return posits that 30% of your conversations will be really useful; 50% will be fine but unexciting, and 20% will be a waste of time. How freeing! When you hit a dud, that is to be expected, so don’t give up. And what should you do when you get no response to an outreach? Don’t make up a story about deliberate rejection; consider what else might be true. In all likelihood it’s not a about you, but rather a reflection of how busy the other person is. Follow up twice before moving on.

Melcher’s practical guidance normalizes what all investors know: not all bets pay off, and you should not make overly emotional decisions or pull out of the market just because you have a bad day. Build a balanced portfolio, ride it out, and keep investing.