How do I build my professional network?

| 19 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


Where do you start when it comes to building a professional network? And what does it take to maintain and cultivate those relationships?

Guest: Deborah Gray, professor of marketing, College of Business Administration at Central Michigan University

In this episode of The Search Bar, host Adam Sparkes interviews Deborah Gray, a professor of marketing at Central Michigan University, about professional networking. Gray explains that networking is not just about having contacts on platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook, but about building relationships with others. She identifies three types of networking: the self-similarity principle (networking with people who are similar to oneself), the proximity principle (networking with people in close proximity, such as colleagues or neighbors), and the shared activities principle (networking with people based on shared activities or interests). Gray emphasizes the importance of the shared activities principle, as it allows for networking with individuals who have different perspectives and knowledge. She also discusses the gender differences in networking, noting that women tend to focus on mentoring others, while men are more utilitarian in their networking approach. Gray suggests various ways to build a professional network, such as joining boards, community groups, or business resource groups, and emphasizes the need for a strategic and intentional approach to networking. She also provides tips on maintaining and cultivating relationships within a network, such as keeping notes on contacts, finding common interests to bring up in conversations, and regularly reaching out to network connections. Gray concludes by encouraging individuals to be comfortable with asking for help and giving back to their network when possible.




Adam: Where do you start when it comes to building a professional network? And what does it take to maintain and cultivate those relationships? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers on professional networks. Deborah Gray, professor of marketing at Central Michigan University is here to help us do just that. Thank you for coming in. I'm excited to network with you. And we're going to talk a little bit about networking and your expertise in networking.

What is networking?

Adam: I thought that it would be beneficial for the audience for you to kind of tell me in your view what networking is. And I know that you were telling me before we got on camera that there's three different types of networking. Maybe we start there to have a good baseline for everybody who might be listening.

Deborah: So, maybe it's best to start with what networking isn't. Because when I talk with others about networking, they talk a lot about their LinkedIn contacts, their Facebook contacts, and those are contacts. They're not necessarily your network. And so technically speaking, someone in your network is someone that you have a relationship with. Now, that doesn't have to be an in-depth relationship, but it's someone that you have a connection with, a relationship with. And generally speaking, there are three types of networking that people sort of fall into.

So, the first one is the self-similarity principle. The second one is the proximity principle, and the third one is the shared activities principle. The self-similarity principle is one in which people tend to network with others who are like them. Interestingly enough, women tend to the self-similarity principle. The proximity principle is you tend to network with people who you're in close proximity with.

So, people at work, the people who you spend the most time with, neighbors and whatnot. And then the shared activities principle is the one where I sort of study in that golf area is this notion that you are networking with folks based on a shared activity. And it is said that this is the best way to network. So networking with people who are like you is probably going to limit your network, right? Also, going to limit discourse and the information that you're taking in. Proximity, again, same thing, going to limit who you have a relationship with, but that shared activities principle is one where you'll most often run into people who are different than you, who have different ideas. And from a career perspective, perhaps even have knowledge of jobs or promotions. The shared activities principle is the one that everyone should gear toward.

Adam: It's kind of casting the widest net possible.

Deborah: Yeah, that's a good way to say it.

Are there gender differences in networking?

Adam: When you talk about the similarities principle, so that's somebody who has a common personality or common values to you. Is that what we're talking about?

Deborah: Yeah. Common values and maybe even a common career. So if we network with people who are like us, how do we use our network to help us in our relationships and our careers? And mostly, I study this from a career perspective. And so there was an interesting study that just came out from the Journal of Management in June, I believe, very interesting. And what they looked at was the difference between men and women. They found specifically that women gear toward a relationship with folks who are very much like them or people who are lower, maybe a career job because women tend to want to network with people that they can mentor as opposed to men whom the research study after study after study shows that men build more powerful networks than women. And that's because they're willing to network with people based on a utilitarian perspective.

Adam: So, what can you do for me?

Deborah: Yeah, what can you do for me? Women tend to not want to do that because it doesn't feel good, it doesn't feel authentic, where men are just much more functional about it. And so one of the things that I say to men and women is just know this. And for men who are leading sales teams, who are leading entire groups of managing folks, I think that's very important to point out so that we can develop, particularly women. But there are some limitations to this, and part of the limit is what's called a structural limit. So if you look at the differences between men and women, women tend to still in this day and age be more responsible for household duties for caregiving. In fact, I just read an interesting statistic, I think it was on AARP that said that 60-ish percent of caregivers out there are women because of this, women don't have the time really to be able to spend networking after hours where there was a study by Pew Research that suggests that married men have about three and a half more hours of leisure time than women.

So we have a disparity in leisure time between men and women, which sort of contributes to this lack of time to develop these networks. And what I find is oftentimes these types of things, so golfing for example, usually starts in the afternoon and runs through the evening even when it's on the workday, unless you're starting at 11, it's going to run into that time where a lot of women have commitments. But the other thing I want to say about golf that I find really interesting, and the thing that I was drawn to it is that it is so disparate in terms of male-female equality. So only about 20, depending on which source you're using, about 25, 26, 27% of women are golfers. And that's another reason I love golf. That's something that I just observed on the golf course. Where are all of the women, if we know this can help your career?

Where are all of the women? I just got to say, that everybody thinks that everyone who golfs is good. They're not. I'm here to tell you they are not. The average male handicap is about 14. The average woman handicap, woman's handicap is 28. And some people go, oh my gosh. Well, that's less than a stroke a hole, first of all. And those are pretty high numbers, I think. And those are only the people who are reporting a handicap to the USGA. So in my experience, and again, because I don't have a choice, I golf mostly with men. Most people are not good golfers. They're just not that great. But you're having fun. I'm having fun and I can hold my own. The other thing that comes to mind is I know that it is not a skill issue with women. I do hear a lot of women go, I'm not sure if I can golf, but I hear that equally from men.

So women represent 25, 26, 27% of on-course golfers, but you know what? They represent 45% of golfers at places like Top Golf. Oh, really? So they're willing to go out and spend a couple of hours. So this gets back to that time constraint. They're willing to go out and play a couple of hours at Top Golf. So we need six-hole courses. We need six-hole courses, we need more golf sims. We need more places to network like Top Golf, which by the way, I love.

How do I use shared activities to strengthen my network? 

Deborah: And so, if we get back to that shared activities principle, golf is a shared activity. And so that's been the focus of my research. But that is not to say that that shared activity has to be golf. That just happens to be my passion, my love. And I know from my research that it has helped women build their careers. So that's been my focus, but it doesn't have to be golf.

And, so, it can be things like volunteering to be on a board, volunteering to do other activities that you're passionate about, but that consciously you can look to see, oh yeah, I can meet people who are different from me and maybe who have some, for the lack of a better word, power in the workforce. And we can't even limit the word power to someone who's higher than me in an organization. We can also talk about those super connectors in networking. So, finding those people, it's that person who knows everyone. You really want to hone those types of people because you can leverage your network with their network. And so the shared activities principle doesn't have to be golf. I think a lot of people go to a golf course with the objective of networking, inviting their boss to golf, or inviting a client to golf, and they don't have an agenda.

Adam: So, you need to have an agenda?

Deborah: And I'm not saying you have to write that down, but maybe you should write it down, commit it to memory, put it on your phone. But what is your objective? What is it that you want to accomplish during this round of golf? Because if you aren't going to the golf course with an agenda, with an idea of what goal am I trying to reach here and what are my tasks for reaching it? What do I need to find out about this person? How do you know if you've met the goal? So you really have to think about golf like any other meeting. We aren't going to go to a meeting unprepared, and somehow we tend to do this with golf. We just show up and hope it happens. Got to be more strategic about it.

What are the best places to expand my network?

Adam: What are my non-golf networking startups?

Deborah: Boards, community groups, just getting involved with as much as you can. Art groups. I have a lot of friends who sit on a lot of boards here in Mount Pleasant. And across the nation also, most large corporations have what are called BRGs, so business resource groups. And those typically are around an activity. I spoke to the women of Bosch probably six, seven months ago, and there was a woman who was telling me that they have a BRG group that is based on family research. So, helping each other find your DNA family out there.

Adam: Oh, a genealogical thing.

Deborah: Yes. Thank you. That's the word I was looking. Yeah, so that's an activity. So a genealogical, you're going to meet people who are different than you, but who have that interest. But I really think for me at least, I've had some really good experiences with being on boards, nonprofit boards.

Adam: I was going to say, give me an example of boards. I don't think it's as intimidating as it sounds. I think for a lot of us, if you're not adjacent to that and you hear someone say it, it's kind of like I have to get appointed to some board. I don't own enough three piece suits for that. But it's not necessarily that, is it?

Deborah: No. Normally with boards, they want to find people who have different areas of expertise. So the chances are you're going to lend your expertise to that board, whether that's sales, marketing, in my instance, branding, whatever your strength is, even accounting, we can bring that to a board and it's good for your community, but it's also good for your network.

How do I maintain a meaningful professional network? 

AdamSo, if it's through golf or it's through being on a board, or I'm just being involved in my community, I'm starting to build this network. I've got a new job, I got more people on LinkedIn, I got more people on Facebook, I have more people in my proverbial Rolodex. How do I maintain that? How do I make sure that people don't just become somebody that I played that round of golf with once, or I sat on that board in my community for 18 months and then I never ever spoke to 'em again? How do I kind of keep sowing the seeds of that professional interconnectivity?

Deborah: Yeah, you've got to develop a process. And whether that process is a networking app or an Excel spreadsheet, I keep a lot of notes. I'm pretty good at remembering names, but I still keep a little note in my phone where I could go back and refresh my memory. But I think it's very important to map your network. So let's map it first, and that means just writing out who's in my network and how am I connected to them. And then, part of building that connection is finding out things about the person that can bring you back into a conversation with them. So, you and I were talking about kids and homecoming dresses, right? So if I commit that to memory, and the next time I see you, "Hey, how did the girls' homecoming go? How did the dresses work out?"

Adam: They were beautiful no matter what.

Deborah: That's right. That brings a lot, I mean, it makes you feel good. I'm listening to you, I'm hearing you, and I'm following up with you. So, I think it's very important to not just collect information for the sake of collecting it, but then you need to do something about it. Do something with it. And so much of that is picking up the phone, just, "Hey, I just want to touch base with you." Say hello. Talk about that thing that we talked about, sending an email. Although I don't love email for this because it's kind of hard to really build that relationship. But leaving that voicemail, I really encourage the folks that I work with to pick up that phone or invite someone to coffee and be very mindful about their time. But it takes a lot of time and effort to build your network. And it could be exhausting, but I think if we're strategic about it and we come up with a method for staying up on it, and maybe that's putting it in your calendar to touch base with so-and-so, or maybe you put everyone on a three month, one month, two-month, three-month iteration where you're checking in with them.

How do I organize my contacts for networking?

Adam:  What do you do? You said "map it out." Is it like an art project or is it more of an organizational project?

Deborah: Yeah, I use Excel. So I have all of the people that I have my contacts with. I have an Excel spreadsheet, and it gives the date of the last time I talked to them, how I know them, what their work, their contact information. And then I have a separate column where I date it and I put in interesting information that I learned from the last time we spoke. And that's how I sort of map it. I mean, actually that's more of tracking than mapping. So mapping is really writing down who do I know and how do I know them? And then looking at that list of people and saying to yourself, who do I need to know? What are my professional goals? Or maybe even what are my social goals? Do I need more friends? Do I need more friends in this area? Who do you need to connect with and why?

And then filling in that network. But again, I think it's just very important to think more utilitarian and strategic about it as opposed to just letting it happen. Particularly for women, we tend to just let it happen instead of being very strategic and intentional about it. It's not a feeling of guilt, it's a feeling of reciprocity. So oftentimes we feel like, well, if I can't give the person something, why should I take from them? Whether that's their contacts. But the bottom line is that's what a network is. I mean, find a way to give, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a give take, and maybe the other person just wants to mentor you, so they are giving back in their eyes. But yeah, I think we just have to get away from this notion that everyone in our network, I have to equally give.

I mean, hopefully, that's the case, but it doesn't always work out that way. And think about your own network and relationships where you do the bulk of the work. I like to think that everything that I'm doing somehow will impact the persons around me, the people around me in a positive way. We need to get more comfortable asking. I think it's a good thing to ask the person who you're asking certainly has the agency to say no, or "I don't have time." I've become a little bit more comfortable with rejection over the years. I'm not afraid to ask. And the worst case is they say yes.

Adam: Right? I mean, yeah, that's a tough one. I feel like that comes with experience though too, right?

Deborah: It does. Absolutely.

Adam: You reach this point in your life where you're like, well.

Deborah: And I think too, going back to this notion of the reciprocity and equally giving, again, we don't equally give in our relationships. It sort of ebbs and flows. I mean, sometimes you're giving more, and sometimes the other person is giving more. So just recognizing that and then paying it forward and giving when you can, I think is absolutely the right thing to do.

How do I start building a professional network?

Deborah: I was speaking at an engagement last week and I had someone ask me, how do I even start networking? So forget golf, but how do I start networking? And my advice to that person is to, let's first start with the basics. Who do you know within your organization? Who do you know? Where is your alma mater? So high school, probably less important, but certainly university. What is your hometown? And so trying to connect with people based on those things. And I think alumni groups are just really, really a great place to connect with folks. So I know CMU does a great job with our alumni group, and that is a very good example of the shared activities principle. You can meet a ton of people and what do you have in common with them? Fire up Chips.

Adam: Yeah. Right.

Deborah: Yeah. That's pretty special. Conferences are a great way to meet people and hopefully it's a conference that's sort of outside, so it's an activity based outside of your area of expertise where we tend to find that self-proximity principle. Yeah. Conferences are great. I meet a ton of people. I love D-I-Y. Just think about the things that you love to do. I mean, there's just definitely way more than golf. Golf just seems to be the thing for business, but it doesn't have to be golf.

Adam: Yeah. There there's a hundred things you could be out there doing.

Deborah: Yeah, what do you love?

Adam: Dungeons and Dragons.

Deborah: Right? That's a great example. My brother-in-law loves Dungeons and Dragons. He has parties.

Adam: You'll meet so many people. Yeah.

Deborah: Yeah.

Adam: We'll meet so many people. Well, this has been a lot of fun.

Deborah: Yes, it has.

Adam: Thanks so much for talking to me about networking. I feel like we're in the network together now.

Deborah: We are. That's a good point. Let's golf together.

Adam: Oh my gosh. You're going to have to teach me to golf for that. Let's play Dungeons and Dragons together. I'll teach you. You have to teach me. There we go. That's the fair exchange. Thanks so much, Debora.

You're welcome.

Thanks for listening to or watching The Search Bar. Make sure that you like or subscribe so that you never have to search for another episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.