If you’re in a career transition, trying to rise up the corporate ladder, raise venture capital, or move any number of professional mountains, the key to success may involve leaning on your looser, lesser-known connections.
This goes against our instincts. Throughout our careers, we’ve been taught to turn to our mentors and sponsors, our close friends, our allies, or our “personal board of directors” to gain insights, advice, and support. But it’s the lesser-known or even unknown connections that are more likely to ignite new ideas, open doors, or connect you to other powerful players. These connections, referred to as “weak ties” by Mark Granovetter, have the power to influence and transform your career. Granovetter’s work is central to the book The Defining Decade in which the author, Meg Jay, states that:
“It’s the people we hardly know, and not our closest friends, who will improve our lives most dramatically.”
While the book focuses on those in their 20s – encouraging them to establish a broad and varied network to help them grow in their professional careers – these lessons serve professionals of any age. Weak ties are particularly important for women and other underrepresented groups who, as they get further and further up the career ladder, find themselves less and less like those around them.
Consider who helped you the last time you were attempting to do something big. Launching a new company. Kickstarting your podcast. Getting that big media interview. Having your name thrown into consideration for a board of director role. It was likely one of your weaker ties who led to these phenomenal opportunities – who helped you get out of a crunch, come to a new realization, gain access to someone who could help you in a way that none of your existing connections could, particularly those who are “closest” to you. It’s easy to chalk these wins up to kismet or the universe conspiring in your favor. But no, it’s actually your weak ties at work.
Career moves and the strength of weak ties
When it comes to career advancement and pivots, it’s your weak ties that are more likely to make things happen. Why is this? Your close family, friends, close colleagues, “personal board of directors”, and mentors – who certainly care deeply for you and support you – have already exhausted their connections and means. Turning to your tried-and-true connections over and over (doing what you have always done) will surely lead to getting the same results you have always gotten.
You may get a false sense of movement because these “strong ties” collaborate, encourage you, and bolster your confidence, but that sense of movement is what is called in the sales world “a continuation.” What you need is “an advance.” To achieve something new, something big, you need new connections working in your favor: weak ties.
So, where do you start with intentionally leveraging your weak ties to fuel your career pivot or advancement? Here are four ways to get started.
Expand your circles beyond small cohort groups
Small cohort groups that many organizations espouse are not the model that will move you the farthest the fastest in today’s world.
That friend of a friend you met at dinner last week; the woman you sat next to at the conference; your new LinkedIn connection. When you think about your life and all the opportunities for weak ties, you can see them all around you.
The key is viewing these new connections through a fresh lens: these aren’t just connections – they are opportunities. Think about their backgrounds, who they may know, and how sincere they seemed in getting to know you.
Within my own network, I’ve heard of countless weak ties that have led to incredible opportunities. One executive bravely shared her goal of achieving a board seat at a dinner event where she was surrounded by weak ties. The following week, one of those weak ties called to ask for her resume – and now she’s a board candidate with a company on the verge of going public. In another instance, a connection between two members of the global leadership community I lead became an invaluable shared learning experience between their respective companies. Now, they’re in the early stages of an important business partnership.
Find meaningful ways to connect
Connecting to weak ties and getting assistance begins with your sincerity in getting to know someone new and helping them in return. It’s not a flash exchange of a business card and a stoic request. Find it within yourself to be meaningful in your interactions. That means making the time, listening with intention, and keeping an open mind.
I personally don’t like the term “networking”. It implies something that is not an always-on, instinctive activity. Instead, you must always be connecting with intention. Whether meeting someone in line in a coffee shop (as I once did, resulting in an Athena membership), or on the sidelines of a soccer field, or next to you on a plane. Ask meaningful questions of them, and it will invite meaningful questions of you. Get to know what they are focused on, what they are interested in, what they are seeking. And, wherever possible, offer support in some small way (which often has a bigger impact than you think). You will get the same in return. This is the power of reciprocity.
The ability to partner and help each other will reveal itself organically if you are naturally curious and engaged. I believe one of the reasons people have so many meaningful “I met this person on an airplane, and…” stories is because we are a captive audience, so we tune in more.
Avoid focusing on a forward ask
If it doesn’t feel like the right time to make an ask, request an introduction, and so on – then it isn’t. Avoid coming to the relationship with any agenda or expectation that you will walk away with your problems solved.
At Athena, it’s always easy to make connections between members when the first focus is on advice, guidance, and shared stories. It’s much harder if there is a commitment the other side needs to make before they’ve had just a chance to get to know you.
I find that I am constantly offering to make introductions – typically unsolicited. Because I know that when I proactively give, I nurture relationships. And the people I make the introductions for are more likely to do the same for me when I need it most.
Recognize the value of your broader network – the rest will take care of itself
Don’t get discouraged if you interact with your broader network and opportunities aren’t presented overnight. The most important thing is understanding its inherent value – it will deliver in time. Knowing that, it’s important to continue to invest in your weak ties. Have an open mindset and resist the temptation to limit yourself to small comfortable circles.
This guest post was authored by Coco Brown
Coco Brown is the founder and CEO of Athena Alliance, a virtual community of the top women leaders in business.
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