By Laura Stenovec, Denver
I send between 750-800 holiday cards every year. “I’m building relationships,” I tell people when they look at me funny. Networking has become part of who I am, as a person and professional. It helped start my career, build a business, and create the most meaningful relationships. Recently in Denver, I opened my team’s conference by thanking the audience – a group of top leaders with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working every day – for being some of the most important relationships in my life. I meant it. And yet, I never saw myself in this industry.
My career started in nonprofit development and fundraising. From a young age, I knew I wanted to do this. During my senior year of boarding school, I had been involved in the “student alumnae” program. When I started my job search at the end of college, I told my Tri Delta advisors about this program and shared that I wanted to find a job in education. One advisor told me she knew of a girl’s school being opened, and a colleague suggested they could be hiring. I knew this would be a perfect fit. So, as a plucky college senior, I just called up the president of the school. He laughed and was surprised I even knew about the position. My response was, “I networked.” I think he was surprised I had the chutzpah to call! But, as a result, my resume was put on the top of the list. And this never would have happened, had I not built an open and engaged relationship with my advisors.
Later in my career, a friend told me that her niece was starting a company called Beautycounter. She thought I would be great in a position where success required building a team through genuine connections and then strengthening that team through investing in their personal growth and accomplishments. I initially told her no; I wasn’t ready to take such a risk. Then I saw an article about the company in The New York Times. My mom and I joke that the article was “above the fold” in the Times, so you know it had to be good! The article talked about the lack of regulation in health and safety in the beauty and personal care industry. It focused on reading labels and looking at human health issues. But what truly resonated with me was their focus on selling person-to-person, through direct sales, and not at stores. This would require connecting with people, sharing a mission and empowering consumers. It was right up my alley. Plus, this career shift would allow me to have a bigger outlet for education, health and safety, and put my skills to work to help build a business I wanted. I could be fulfilled by making a difference and I’d make a good income. I never thought this could be possible. And here I am, six years later, with a team of 15,000 consultants. I am so grateful.
I began to realize that both careers came from my ability to network and, as a result, form meaningful connections. From my education and time helping found my chapter of Tri Delta, to interning at my NBC affiliate, I had surrounded myself with community-building connections. And I’ve been putting it to use ever since.
My first essential of networking is to be authentically you as you get to know someone who you could connect with on a professional – or even personal – level. Be genuine, be curious, ask questions, and, most importantly, follow up and invest in the relationship. Make sure that you are someone who pours yourself into a relationship, and not one who takes and takes, draining them with self-serving motivations. When you ask for a favor, do it with purpose and intention. People are more likely to respond to someone who has been invested, rather than someone who is absent until they need something.
It’s also important to stay organized, in whichever manner suits you best. I still use a Rolodex (Google it). I like to collect information on people and places and keep it handy. I know that, in this digital age, we are trying to rid ourselves of paper, but it’s been one of my greatest secrets of networking.
Understand and be comfortable with the fact that relationships change. People who may have been great contacts in the past may no longer be, due to their personal or professional path. Make an effort to maintain genuine connections. But, if it starts to feel as though the dynamic is forced, don’t be afraid to move on.
There’s no single, perfect way to effectively network. When I’m asked how to grow a business, I encourage people to do things that bring them joy. Do this and watch the circles of influence grow. You can’t just be there to “network and meet people”; they will see straight through to your lack of genuine interest. Get involved in what you like. The connections you make will follow because you’ll naturally surround yourself with people who have similar interests to yours.
You have to prioritize networking, in order to make those meaningful connections. Take advantage of professional opportunities that include networking, and actively work to grow your circle through social events. Consider what you are doing to get yourself out there to meet people. The mindset can’t be “what’s in it for me?” but rather “how can I help?” Think about what you can actually give in relationships, and remember that you must follow through and make an authentic effort to help others.
There are also some surefire mistakes you can make in networking – not following up, not thanking people, not paying it forward. Stop doing things for something in return; do it because it’s the right thing to do. There are times when we act for good karma points, but the bad karma always comes back.
My passion for networking comes full circle through Tri Delta. It’s where we learned how to be leaders. We were put in uncomfortable situations, exactly as we are in our careers and the real world. We were introduced to people with common interests and values, who will, in turn, offer their support. It’s provided us a space and time in our lives to build and grow relationships and see how we can give back to them. Even if it’s just a holiday card.
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