We’ve all been there.
Listening to a colleague offer way too much information about his career achievements, management prowess, and soft skills way too soon. It’s painful, but that’s what networking mixers have typically been all about. So you wait your turn to talk and when your colleague finishes, you find yourself launching into your own semi-rehearsed and just-as-tedious rendition of the self-acclaimed rising rockstar. You’re “networking” your “personal brand”—two buzzwords used to describe activities that should be positive, but somehow wind up just feeling cringeworthy. It’s time to figure out why, and how we can reshape the notion of both.
Networking is that critical activity we all know we’re supposed to do to advance our careers, but so few of us actually enjoy. We try adding cocktails and raffles, or read up on effective networking tips, but it’s all the same. Yet, we also bow to the innate understanding that our careers depend on this stilted chatter.
As personal as our careers are, they do, in fact, depend on relationships with other human beings. There’s really no way around it, but it also doesn’t have to be so painful. The problem with networking is that the powerful notion of human interdependence has been stripped down to a raw transaction in which each party spends the conversation waiting for the business-card-exchange. Networking conversations have become nothing more than a pair of painful monologues, spoken at people, rather than to them.
And as it turns out, humans aren’t really wired to enjoy this kind of interaction (sociopaths excepted, of course). In fact, according to an Ivy League study, people literally feel dirty after these kinds of exchanges. Something has to change.
Self-advocacy is also an important component of career development. Employees want help spreading the word about their skills and experience so their accomplishments can be recognized and rewarded (and rightly so!) The idea of personal brand has emerged as a framework for creating intentionality behind how employees present themselves in the workplace.
Still, today’s employees are encouraged to advocate for themselves by voicing their values, skills, and interests and by aligning their actions with these things in a demonstrative way. This isn’t a bad idea, since it can be quite effective. However, the problem here is similar to that of networking. “Personal brand” has become a euphemism for “I’m here to sell me.”
Brand is just another monologue.
So, we’ve got a bunch of walking monologues coming together over cocktails to monologue at each other, and we wonder why we walk away feeling like no real connections have been made. Authentic personal branding breaks this mold by turning a monologue into a back and forth conversation.
Changing the Language, Shifting the Paradigm
There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation about yourself with others. But how do you do so in the context of career without reverting back to the awkward?
It starts at the individual level…because that’s where all career conversations start. As individuals, we need to shift our focus from “me, me, me” to “we, we, we” (insert joke about this little piggy). We need to think not just about our own values, skills, and interests, but also about how others around us experience our presence in the workplace. In other words, we need to think less about brand and more about reputation.
Reputation is a dialogue. Reputation is the space between two people, the space between my identity as an individual and how you perceive my identity. If I take time to explore that space, it means I’m taking time to understand you. So, as the second person in this dialogue, you’re feeling energized too, because we all need to be seen and known.
So what does this have to do with networking?
Let’s think back to our typical networking event. But instead of your colleague talking at people, he’s introduced himself, given you some background, and is now, asking questions. Suddenly, things shift and you find yourself not only answering, but also asking him questions. Before you know it, you and your colleague have found mutual ground in that space between the two of you. You’ve learned something real about him and vice versa (turns out, he’s a pretty great guy). And in 10 minutes, the two of you have even landed on a great way to help each other out in your separate career paths—and you haven’t even touched your business cards yet!
You’re now much more than another wallet-sized rectangle of paper that you need to scan into Evernote. You’re now exchanging value. The people you meet are not just another means to an end in your network. They are now part of your community.
Communities are built on trust, mutual benefit, and exchange of value . Communities are comprised of people who share much more than just a business card. Communities are the lifeblood of – well – life, and that includes your career. We don’t get the best of our careers without inspiring the best in each other.
Taking Branding and Networking to the Next Level
Let’s get practical about making that paradigm shift and adding more value to your career interactions. Here are some tips:
- Ask about your reputation.
- It’s amazing what you can learn by reaching out to a few people and asking them a simple question: “What’s it like to be on the other side of me?” Start the dialogue. And listen openly, without defending yourself. It takes courage to ask the question, yes. But it also takes courage to answer it honestly. Reward that honesty with your appreciation.
- Address gaps.
- Gaps emerge when our identities—the way we view our values, strengths, and interests—don’t match what we learn from others about our reputations. When you find these gaps, find out what’s causing them, and work to close them.
- List three people to whom you could add value tomorrow.
- You know what you have to offer, so go offer value instead of reaching out with an agenda. Be intentional, of course, because you’re still looking for mutual benefit, but be strategic…not selfish.
When it comes to career, self-advocacy will always be a good thing—as will looking to others for support. What needs to shift is the way we go about both of these activities with greater intentionality—not just to get what we want, but also to learn how others see us and how we can support each other in career growth.