Cultivating peer networks

Learning  Relationships
08 April, 2019

How a powerful peer network can transform you

An experiment found that networking makes many people feel dirty—quite literally. Participants were asked to write about either a) networking for professional advancement, or b) social networking for friendship. Next, everyone was asked to complete word fragments like W __ SH, SH __ ER, and S __ P. Researchers found that those focused on professional networking were twice as likely to make words associated with cleansing away dirt (WASH, SHOWER, SOAP), while those who recalled social networking wrote neutral words like WISH, SHAKER, STOP. The negativity towards networking was not just linked with dislike or awkwardness—there was actually an “ick” factor at work. (You can read more about the experiment here.)

Even in the real world, many of us feel ambivalent or averse towards networking. It seems inauthentic and selfish, the idea of getting to know people simply in order to extract some sort of benefit from them. And if it’s with peers, then many of us can be even more wary. But what if it wasn’t so full of the negative? What if you were to approach this as building a carefully chosen and cultivated circle of peers? What if it goes beyond mere petty transactions; rather, it engages, inspires, supports and fulfils you?uctive?

Imagine being part of a community of intelligent, talented peers who are eager to share their knowledge, have lively discussions, help each other out on occasion, and connect you with other such people-at its best, that is what peer networking is all about.

So, my message this week is on how and why to leverage your peer networks more effectively 

Peer networks are disrupting the way we approach relationships, access data, form opinions and even run businesses. Add to this, infiltrating, powerful social media and technology, and it’s no surprise that that is here to stay. And grow. People use peer networks to choose where they should work, who they should partner with, what they should buy and when they should buy it. These are real time, evolving and you’re certainly a part of it, whether consciously or not. So, what if you were to become more deliberate and use similar networks to augment your personal learning curve?

James Millar sums up this up very aptly in his article Leaders Need To Harness The Power Of Peer Conversations:

We are in the early days of a profound shift: in business, in science, in government, and in society. Outdated assumptions and familiar patterns are likely to fail us. It’s clear that we can no longer rely on what we know ourselves. Instead, we need better ways to aggregate and refine what we know together. 

To invigorate and grow your network, you need a shift in mindset as well as a change in behaviour. Here are some recommendations to get started:

1. Embrace networking

To make the transition from “I avoid networking” to “I like networking”, you need to change the narrative in your mind.  People who view networking as full of possibilities for growth and learning approach it with curiosity, enthusiasm and an open mind, while those who see it as a necessary evil are less engaged and authentic. No prizes for guessing who does better at it.

Frankly, it isn’t that hard to tweak your perspective. Next time you’re about to enter a function thinking “oh no, yet another night where I’m obligated to make small talk and be phony”, stop and re-orient. Remind yourself that the room is full of people just as smart and real as you; surely a chance to interact with them can’t be all bad? Think of it as an opportunity to learn, discover and-yes-maybe even have some fun.

2. Know your value

The hallmark of a successful networking relationship is mutual benefit. This can sometimes hold us back from approaching those who are more experienced or better-connected than us. “What would I possibly give them?” you may think, and dismiss the idea altogether. Remember, what you offer doesn’t need to be valuable for you-it needs to be valuable for the other person.

Ask yourself: “What do I bring to the table? What can I offer?” Venture beyond conventional concepts-think out of the box, and be specific. Once you know your strengths, you can be proactive. For instance, if you have experience working in a particular region, offer a few insights to a colleague who has started working with a team located there. This way, they know they can get in touch with you for advice. Or, if you’re an avid reader of industry news, you could occasionally send relevant articles to your contacts (be they co-workers, clients or vendors). Not only are you linking them with interesting new ideas, you are also keeping yourself current. Or, if you are good at connecting the dots, focus on bringing people together through thoughtful introductions.

3. Give generously

You must give to receive. Don’t wait until you need a favour to start contributing-that’s not how networking works. Help your peers in small, insightful ways as and when you can. Not only will you earn goodwill and a solid reputation (both of which are rewards in themselves), but they will also be far more likely to come through for you when you truly need something.

In 8 Secrets From Power Networking Pros, Molly Triffin relates a telling story from networking expert, Ivan Misner. A contact of Misner’s would call him up every couple of months to ask how his latest project was going, and whether he could help in any way. After a year of reaching out regularly, he called up and told Misner he wanted to ask for a favour. Misner said yes before he even knew what the favour was! Explains Misner, “…he’d invested so much in our relationship that I was happy to do it.”

4. Move outside your immediate circles

Peers don’t just mean colleagues within your team, or even your company. What are you doing to build external peer networks with colleagues or business partners? Their perspectives can be very powerful, especially because they are likely to see things differently from people within your everyday networks. You can use this to complement your own insights, and learn from different scenarios and challenges. Start perhaps by joining local platforms which bring together peers from a similar industry or themed around areas of common interest. You can then slowly expand to country-level networks and even global ones. This is where technology and social media can be especially powerful.

5. Know what you’re looking for

There are going to be different people who will reach out to for different things, so think about your networks accordingly. There will be people who you can turn to for mentoring, people who can learn specific skills from, people with exposure to networks or contexts that you want to be part of, people who have completely different backgrounds and can offer you a contrarian view, people who are recipients of the work you do (like your business partners), people who share similar interests and where this has possibly little or nothing to do with work at all. You will find them in different places and contexts and you will need to invest in and build on these relationships separately. Appreciate that there isn’t a one size fits all option. So, instead of letting the scope intimidate you, choose what matters most to you as a starting point.

6. Get creative

There are so many ways to make this exciting. In How To Learn From Your Peers At The Workplace on the QuickStart Blog, the author suggests setting up learning weeks. If you’re a manager, try it with your team. Earmark a week and ask each team member to prepare a short session on something they want to share with everyone else. No restrictions – it could be any topic, as long as the larger group finds it useful. Then, get everyone together and share. If you find it helpful, take it one step further – set it up across teams and then maybe even countries. It’s a great way for people to discover and share ideas and expertise.

P.S: Introverts can network too!

You may think that only extroverts can excel at social activities like networking. It’s time to shatter this myth: introverts can build and sustain flourishing networks just as successfully as people who are more outgoing. All this needs is a slightly different strategy. Introverts function better in quieter, more intimate settings. So, if you’re an introvert, play to your strengths and prioritise functions like small dinner parties and one-on-one chats. Skip events that have a mile-long guest list or are held in noisy environments—not only will you be uncomfortable, the experience will be unproductive for you. Introverts do best when they attend fewer events and cultivate relationships with a select circle. After all, networking is all about quality-not quantity.

Honestly, in the end, the cost of rejecting networking is too high. It would mean giving up on the possibilities afforded to us by chance meetings and serendipitous conversations, as well as rejecting the notion that we’re all in this together and can be sources of help and wisdom for each other. And with how connected the world around us is today, and how much more connected it is going to become, it simply doesn’t make sense to fight it. Instead, why not try reimagining this as something positive and productive?

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