In business school, and maybe even at work, you were likely told that networking is crucial to building your path to success. There are different philosophies and slogans out there: “It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know,” “It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows you.” These are all great catchphrases and honestly, they are all right. Networking is very important to your career as well as to your life. But why is it so hard?
In my post, The 4 Most Important Habits for Your Career, I talk about ways to improve your networking skills so you can really connect with others. In my book, 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School, I talk more specifically about how networking can jump start and/or boost your career and I include specific steps for you to take so you can make networking work for you. Business schools introduce networking to you and teach you its importance, but they do not teach you how to overcome the major issues keeping you from networking to your full potential.
It is nerve-racking enough when you have to talk to “strangers” who seem much like you in some way whether it is their age, level on the totem pole, gender, or other factor, let alone talking to a VP or Partner. And this is even if the VP or Partner in question works for a different company from where you work. So what is holding you back? And how can you overcome it?
What is holding you back is the same thing that is holding many others back as well, so remember that you are not alone. What impedes your success are your mental obstacles. Maybe you feel unworthy, or like you are wasting the VP’s valuable time by meeting with her. Maybe you feel that by talking to her, you are sucking up. Maybe you think the Partner herself will think you are kissing up or that your peers will think you are brown-nosing. Maybe you think your boss will feel uneasy about your talking to his boss.
If you can overcome your mental obstacles, you will unleash your ability to network and reach your fullest potential. You will approach individuals of any walk of life and you will form valuable, deep relationships. You will meet people who are so different from yourself and in doing so you will learn and grow so much. You will not only develop professionally, but personally as well.
While I cannot take the mental leap for you, this post will make it easier for you to take the leap yourself and overcome the obstacles keeping you from success. Below I have included common mental blocks that are keeping you from networking at your best along with reasoning that should help you eliminate them. Often seeing things from a different perspective is all you need to free yourself.
Mental Block: You Are Unworthy
If you feel unworthy it is because you believe you are not as important as “others”. I put “others” in quotations because it can mean your peers, the VP or Partner, or whoever it is you want to meet (we will use VP or Partner throughout this article for simplicity). Chances are this feeling of uneasiness is there because you know that the VP or Partner makes more money than you do, has a higher title or is more well-known. If this feels familiar to you, consider the following.
While title is something worth noting and appreciating, it really really is not as big a deal as you think. It took these people years to get to the positions they are in now. They are only higher on the totem pole, or better known than you are because they are older (usually) and have had longer to establish themselves.
You are probably making MUCH more money than they did when they were in your position so you are just as worthy as they are, if not more so. You may even have more degrees than they do and they probably value that in you so do not cut yourself short.
Remember that this uneasiness only comes because you know that the VP or Partner is supposed to be someone important. If you had just met them on the street and did not know anything about them, the feeling of unworthiness never would have crossed your mind. So why are you letting it do so now?
VPs and Partners have to put their pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else. They are no different from you. You would be surprised to know that a lot of times VPs and Partners are nervous about meeting you, too. Be the one to break the ice. If you make things easier for them, they will be even more willing to talk to you.
Mental Block: You are Wasting Their Time
The feeling that you are wasting someone’s time is closely related to the feeling of unworthiness. You feel like you are not important enough for someone to take time to talk to you or advise you. Yes, VPs and Partners are busy people, but if they have agreed to talk to your or meet with you they have already shown you that they find you worthy.
VPs and Partners have more than enough experience telling people if they are too busy to meet with them, cutting meetings short or cancelling appointments. They are busy people and have to be selective of their time. It is your job to reach out to them. If they accept, do not think for a moment that you are taking up their time. If they did not want to meet with you, they would not have agreed to. Instead, they agreed to take time out of their day to meet with you which means they already find something of value in you.
And yes, people with grandiose titles are busy, but so are you! If you can make time to meet with people and build relationships, they can as well so do not hesitate reaching out to them.
Mental Block: You Are Kissing Up
Sometimes people will feel like they are kissing up to a VP if they talk to them. But do you feel this way when you talk to your peers? Do you feel this way when you talk to your friends? So why do you feel this way when you talk to a VP or Partner?
If you are merely asking a VP or Partner for advice or just wanting to get to know them because you truly find them interesting, it is not kissing up. Granted, you may be approaching this person because you feel like they can help you in some way, but isn’t that how most relationships form on one level or another?
Take a good look at your relationships today. What is keeping you and these people in touch? It could be friendship, someone you can vent to, someone who is going through something similar. It could be that you have knowledge that the other person values. It could be that the other person provides a service that you value: maybe they are a lawyer, doctor, dentist. They could be a neighbor and they make home feel more like home. Maybe you first became friends because you realized that they have kids the same age as yours and you thought it would be great for your kids to have someone to play with. The person could have been someone you found interesting romantically. Your friend may have helped you in a really important way and that created trust and a budding relationship.
Relationships grow to become more, but they almost always start because at least one person in the relationship found something valuable in the other and they usually last because even if the circumstances change there is still something of value there. So why should you feel different about starting a relationship with someone who has a title? It is ultimately the same situation and you should not feel uneasy about it. Value is one of the currencies of the world.
Once titles come into play, our mentality towards people changes and we forget that they are just like us. Consider this: if this VP was a friend of your mom’s or your dad’s and you have known them your whole life, would you feel like you are kissing up every time you talk to them? You probably would not. If you are approaching any other VP or Partner in the same way you would approach them if they were your family friend, you should not feel that way either.
Kissing up, sucking up, brown-nosing – these are all terms used when someone flatters another but they do not actually mean it for personal gain. Talking to someone to get to know them, build a connection, or ask for advice is not at all the same thing as brown-nosing. Getting to know other people at your organization should be fun and relaxing and about learning and growth.
Mental Block: The VP Thinks You Are Sucking Up
Often, when individuals try to network with VPs or Partners the individual themselves feel like the VP or Partner will think that they are just “sucking up” or buttering them up. In reality, the VP or Partner is probably flattered.
Most people enjoy it when others want to talk to them. Think back to a time when you found out that someone wanted to meet you. Didn’t that make you feel really happy inside? Didn’t that make you want to meet them?
Think back to a time when someone asked you for advice. Did you feel like they were brown-nosing you? You were probably more than willing to help them.
It feels nice to be appreciated and valued and it makes you appreciate and value others more. It is a continuous cycle. If you do start to brown-nose then yes, the VP will catch on. But meeting with him to build a connection or ask for advice is not at all the same thing and will actually only build and strengthen your relationship.
Mental Block: Your Peers Think You are a Brown-nosing
If you honestly are not trying to brown-nose someone, you have nothing to worry about so just ignore your peers. Easier said than done, you say? Agreed. Sometimes our thoughts about what others think really gets to us.
You will never know what others are really thinking so it is best to stop trying to assume or figure it out (we all know what happens when we assume, don’t we?) because unless anyone tells you what they are thinking, it is all in your head.
If it really gets to you, encourage your peers to do what you are doing. Encourage them to find someone to connect with. If your peers see that you are encouraging them to do what you are doing, they will be more accepting. They may even approach you for guidance and will see you as a helpful, nice brown-noser at worst!
Mental Block: Regarding Your Boss’s Boss
This feeling that your boss’s boss would not want to meet with you, again has ties back to feeling unworthy. So ask yourself, why wouldn’t your boss’s boss want to meet with you and get to know you? Why wouldn’t he want to know who you are and what you are working on? You work for him and it is in his best interest to get to know the people he manages because that helps him communicate better. That helps him get his job done better. If the two of you understand each other and have a relationship, that makes it much easier for him to approach you if he needs help on a special project and your boss is swamped.
You might also worry that your own boss will not like that you are talking to her boss. You are probably right whether your boss admits to it or not. But remember, your boss is doing the same thing to her boss. Your boss is talking to her boss’s boss, too. Why should you feel uneasy about it when your boss is doing the same?
Knowing your boss’s boss is very important to your career, but you have to tread carefully because if your boss gets jealous or threatened you may see yourself in a sticky situation. To make things go more smoothly, speak positively about your boss to her boss. If you decide to have lunch with your boss’s boss, occasionally invite your boss as well so she feels included. It would be advisable to let your boss know about your meetings with her boss and it might be nice to also give her general updates on what you discussed with her boss. Also, pay attention to how your boss handles her relationship with her boss’s boss and follow suit.
At the end of the day…
At the end of the day, remember these two points:
1) It is lonely at the top. If you are nervous about talking to people at the top, just think about how others must feel. Most people are nervous at first; you just have to break through the mental barrier. Because people are nervous to talk to people at the top, it can get very lonely up there. Those top levels may be more than happy to talk to someone who is interested in them!
2) Credit goes to my friend, Jenna, on this one: When you get nervous, remind yourself that you are not doing anything out of the ordinary. Anyone who became someone had to get help from those above them to get to where they are today. If there is a VP or Partner, or anyone you are nervous to talk to, remember that they did not get where they are today on their own. They had help from people above and they understand that they could not have done it alone. They will be more than happy to pay it forward and pull you up just as others have done for them.
So grab your courage, get out there, and remember to pay it forward when you are the hot-shot everyone wants to talk to!