Strategic Advisor

Reframing Networking (the People Kind of Networking): What I Learned from Being Asked to Talk about It.

Nicola Acutt recently sat on a panel at RADIO 2017 on the topic of “Authentic Networking”. Read more about RADIO 2017 here. Read more for Nicola’s thoughts on the topic:

I was recently asked to speak on a panel on the topic of “authentic networking”.   After I accepted the invitation, I had an “oh ****” moment as the topic of the talk sunk in.  What was I thinking? I hate networking! The very idea of “networking” at a conference or heaven-forbid, a whole event just for networking, makes me want to run in the opposite direction.  Some people say public speaking is worse than going to the dentist.  I’d rather go to the dentist and then give a talk in front of 100 people, than walk into a room of people I don’t know with the explicit purpose of making small talk and exchanging emails.

Left to right: Amanda Blevins, Kathy Chou, Nicola Acutt, Meng Chow, Pegi Wheeler

So what is networking after all?  And how do you do it authentically? 

As I reflected on what I was going to talk about, I realized that for me, “networking” has never been about “an event”.  In fact, I realized that networking is really all about is relationships. Over the course of my career so far, I’ve been engaged—sometimes actively, sometimes passively—in a process of building different types of relationships. If I look back at the defining moments, the ups and downs, and even the biggest changes in my career, how I have navigated through those moments has been a function of my relationships with people in my network – be it through offering advice, being thought-partners, connectors, advocates, or co-conspirators.

Invest in the social capital you already have

The insight that networking is really about relationships got me thinking about the nature of relationships in our networks, especially as professional women.  Clearly, we have a lot of different types of relationships that span our personal and professional lives. In my mind, there are three distinct clusters (or networks) of relationships around which I realized that I had invested over time.  Almost like an ecosystem, those relationships represent components and connections that are configured in different ways across:

1) work/profession

2) community/cause

3) family/friends

As I thought about my own experience, I realized that indeed, it is these clusters of relationships that make up my network.  But not only that, they are constantly evolving and changing as my life and work unfold.   Upon closer examination, I think these networks include a few special configurations. If I look at my own, here are some examples of particularly important networks that have helped me shape my career:

Work/Profession:  I can’t say enough about building social capital at work.  A great example of my experience in this space is a version of “Lean-In” circles at VMware that we call “Dialogue Circles”.  I was part of a pilot program where we created peer-groups of women and experimented with the learning/professional development content.  The group I am part of has been meeting monthly for over two years now and has diverged from our formal charter to become more of a “posse”; a group of women who not only hold each other accountable for driving business impact, but also look out for and advocate for each other.

Community/Cause: Whatever your chosen profession, I think annual conferences are always a great opportunity for learning and the proverbial networking.  For me, as a working mom, that’s been important — but more important has been having a community of like-minded women around me committed to social impact.  In the early days of motherhood, I was part of a group of women in my field who would meet every quarter at someone’s house to share a meal, check-in, strategize and hold each other’s “roses and thorns” as we navigated the challenges of motherhood and purpose-driven careers. While our work took us in different directions and the group eventually dissolved, those relationships remain an important network.  In my case, this lead directly to being nominated by one of my fellow moms to the Aspen Institute Business and Society Fellowship.  That itself has become an amazing community, and as a result, a new network.

Family/friends: If I think back, I can’t discount the role of family in my network.  Even though I chose a completely different career to my parents (farmer and school teacher), our extended network is a source of great value.  After I graduated from College, I moved to Cape Town without a job or a network.  But I got a shot at my first job because my dad sat next to someone on an airplane who was just starting an environmental consulting practice. They exchanged business cards, and I followed up and landed my first gig. (Granted my dad, unlike me, is a super-social-networker).  Because of that, to this day one of the most important ways for me to give back is by doing informational interviews with the children of colleagues.

If you’d like to learn more about Nicola and her work, follow her on Twitter or visit VMware’s Sustainability Page.