I was lucky enough to sit down with Karen Wickre, a denizen of Silicon Valley who has developed stories, styles and cadence for Google, Twitter, and many startups, and talked about her book Taking the Work Out of Networking. We covered not just how people can become better networkers outside of their workplace, but inside as well — including how to think about networking when you’re remote.
NICK: Thanks so much for taking part. With all of your experience in journalism, and then leading communications teams at Google and Twitter, how did your book “Taking the Work out of Networking” come about?
KAREN: A business editor reached out, and we tossed around ideas, which led me to talk with a literary agent, which led to a book proposal and then a deal with Simon & Schuster. I had written an article for Wired a couple of years prior that my agent thought would appeal to publishers, and she was right. I liked the idea, too, because I’m convinced that this business of connecting, reconnecting, and staying in touch with people over the years gives us a powerful resource for life. It’s much more about that than it is connecting with people around a job search.
NICK: If you were to give advice to someone who doesn’t think of themselves as a natural networker, what would that be?
KAREN: “Networking” is a word I would love to banish! Many of us are not “natural networkers” and even extroverts tell me they hate the transactional nature of that word. But many of us are curious, and kind by nature, and naturally want to connect with our colleagues, former colleagues, and other contacts we make over time. These people are all the basis of your long-term network. It’s built around people you like, enjoy, and remember. And building these connections is all done one by one, never in a group (or at a “networking event” - !).
NICK: Do people find it’s useful to set goals for networking - e.g. ‘I’ll try to connect with a certain number of new people a month?’
KAREN: It might be useful to set a goal if you are on the lookout for a job, a new field or new company, a board seat, speaking opportunities — times when you want to broaden your network for a specific reason. So it’s best to develop a simple daily habit of reaching out and keeping in touch regularly so that you already have people to call on when you are hunting for ideas and potential leads. One way to start that daily habit is to initiate contact with some people you already know, but are not in touch with regularly — say, 3 to 5 contacts per week. Send each one a personal note on whichever platform you two already use. With my Twitter friends, a quick DM to say “How’s the new gig? Can we touch base soon?” is the opener. On WhatsApp or LinkedIn, the opening message reflects those service’s style and of course your relationship. Not everyone will reply right away, and a few not at all. But keep up that habit of outreach to a few, and you’ll get responses and exchanges.
I met someone a few months ago who simply keeps a spreadsheet with maybe 20-30 names of people he trusts and likes who he’s worked with but isn’t often in touch with. He notes the date of their last contact. If it feels too long ago to him, he reaches out to say hi and suggest a call, chat, or in-person date, depending on familiarity and location. Whichever tool you use, keep this kind of running list and initiate these informal touch-points at a reasonable (for you) pace.
NICK: A lot of people think of networking as connecting with people outside of an organization. How do you think of internal vs. external networking?
KAREN: Over the course of any career today, none of us has a single job, or works for one employer. The old idea of networking only when you need a new gig doesn’t jibe with reality when we move around professionally, including into new fields that didn’t exist a few years ago. And just about everyone you know is doing the same thing: moving around professionally and geographically. That’s why it pays to build relationships within your team and your company that you’ll maintain, loosely and intermittently, over time. A second reason to make internal connections, especially at large or growing companies, is to get smarter about the industry and other teams or areas that might interest you to move to. So make friends and contacts beyond your immediate team, within your company. You never know when and how that relationship might help you.
NICK: Often people think of networking as having to have an agenda, being pushy, or really direct. It seems an internal environment can take away this pressure, and it can be a great place to in a sense “practice” networking. Everyone already has a shared connection - i.e. their employer.
KAREN: That’s exactly right. And that’s why making connections on the job is a great way to begin to build your network. You have things in common already, and can learn from each other about what other teams do, how your work fits together (or should) and have more strategic understanding of the whole enterprise — all that in addition to it being fairly low-stress networking.
NICK: What are some practices you see that work well (internal message boards, forming small groups with shared interests that meet regularly, etc.)?
KAREN: Those things you’re suggesting are great — anything that adds context outside of more formal meetings with agendas. (Those are necessary and good for intel, but not the time to make new 1:1 connections.) Initiating contact for coffee (or these days, a virtual coffee) via your internal message board, informal celebrations of team milestones (during #COVID-19, a 30-minute video meetup works wonders) — these sorts of things help you build on working connections. When you’re physically in the same place again, having get-acquainted social hours between teams fosters some good 1:1 contact, and is also an easy way to strengthen how your teams work together. By the way, the personal bonds you share, whether it’s being fans of the same band or the same team, can strengthen your connections and give you something to talk about beyond the job.
NICK: How can people best network when they aren’t in the same office location (and we know many people aren’t in the same location due to COVID-19)?
KAREN: With recent events, keeping up networking as many of us WFH might seem like it’s a low priority, but you should approach it just as you would if a colleague were at a distant office. Scheduling check-in or meetup time with each teammate or new contact is imperative. You might have professional reasons for a 1:1 chat, and if you don’t know each other, a bit of social lubrication before or during your meeting helps you feel more familiar next time. If you’re on a distributed team and you don’t really know everyone (or manage them, or are managed remotely), it’s vital that you take the time for a 20- or 30-minute conversation that helps you get acquainted or stay in touch about what’s going on for you and them over time. These should be fairly regular so that you feel connected and have an outlet for concerns that may pop up.
Staying connected is key for a healthy work culture, and you may find people are more available, or more open to connecting, now that so many of us are working from home.
NICK: We’re big believers in transparent communications within companies. How do you think internal networking helps to shape an organization’s culture?
KAREN: I don’t know how a company can function without encouraging — and building infrastructure for — ongoing internal communications. The ability to connect regularly across teams, locations, functions, and levels. No business can be successful when everyone is in a “need to know” silo. That’s not how products and services are made anymore, and certainly is not effective for either leaders or employees, all of whom need to rely on each other to make something greater than the whole. Ideally your culture is flat and friendly enough that the norm is everyone is reasonably accessible, accountable, and at all levels are there to help colleagues connect all the time in all the ways.
You can learn more about Karen and her book Taking the Work Out of Networking at karenwickre.com.