I recently attended my high-school reunion. It was great to see old friends, but I was struck by how many people I never got to know in high school.
For many, those formative years are tough ones, defined by insecurities and confusion. Kids often create their own social hierarchies in order to survive. Most teens aren't mature enough to understand the nuances of networking effectively, and they miss opportunities to build certain relationships . Unfortunately, as many of us age, we hang on to our high-school insecurities and fail to nurture a robust and lasting network of people to reach out to as we build our professional lives.
Here are five suggestions for breaking out of the high-school mentality to achieve your professional goals and strengthen your professional network.
1. Eat lunch at a different table each day.
In high school, students tended to share their lunch hours with the same group of kids day in and day out. I often see adults in the corporate world do the same thing.
Don't go to lunch with the same person every day. Expand your network by reaching out to others in your department or division. Spend time with people in peripheral departments with professional agendas that are different from yours. Lunch time is a great time to get to know someone on a more personal level. People who take the time to build strong personal relationships have stronger networks to reach out to when they need assistance.
2. Touch the "untouchables."
When I was in high school, there were several cliques. It could be very hard to break into a clique if you weren't part of their shared activity, such as sports or theater. Adults often think that certain people on the corporate ladder are untouchable — that they can't approach a C-suite executive or a potential contact in a new industry.
They assume the new contact won't give them the time of day. While some won't, others will. You won't know until you approach them.
3. Stop thinking that everything is about you.
High-school students often obsess about themselves and everything that is going on in their lives. Small defeats seem like major ones. And many teens are convinced that everyone is watching their every move and waiting for them to slip up. Sometimes we carry this "me-centric" way of thinking into our professional lives.
Usually people aren't paying nearly as much attention to you as you think they are. But they will pay attention to how you interact with them. So when you network, stop thinking about yourself and what you need, and start thinking about how you can help another person. Give to give, and if you get something in return, consider it gravy. Chances are good that if you position yourself as someone who tries to help others, the reciprocity will follow.
4. Interact with people who are not just like you.
In my high school, it was sometimes tough to interact with students in different grades. A junior generally didn't hang out with a freshman, and you rarely saw a sophomore dating a senior. Friendships across racial and ethnic lines occurred, but probably not as frequently as they could have.
This phenomenon happens with adults all the time.
People often limit their networks to contacts in the same job function, industry or professional level. Older professionals reach out to their younger colleagues with less frequency, and networks aren't always as racially integrated as they should be. To improve the quality of your network, diversify. Be all inclusive, and reach out to people of all ages, professions and backgrounds.
5. Have a life outside of high school.
When I was a teen, most of my social life centered on high school. It wasn't until I was a senior and got my first "real job" that I started interacting with people I didn't know from school. Most of them were high-school students as well, and most of them went to the same school, but I never would have met them if I didn't have this job. For various reasons, our paths just never would have crossed. And this part-time job was perhaps the richest experience of all my high-school years. It taught me that my life could be enriched by people outside my usual inner circle. Adults sometimes become enmeshed in the culture of their companies and forget that there is a whole world of professionals to tap into.
If their position is downsized, they struggle because all their connections are with people in the company that just let them go. To better manage your career, find other communities that support your professional goals. Consider joining a professional association for your job function or industry to connect with others and build your network.
What insecurities or bad habits are holding you back from being a more effective networker? And what can you do to change your strategy moving forward?