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How to network during challenging times

My email was simple. After the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, I wrote to clients, colleagues, and prospective partners—including conference organizers and staff at professional societies and universities—saying I recognized they wanted to stay connected to the members of their communities in this challenging time. “If I can help you with this,” I offered, “please let me know.” I noted my experience running webinars and virtual events. “I am available to enable your success.”

Over the preceding weeks, my upcoming gigs to give talks about science and engineering careers had dematerialized into thin air as scientific meetings were canceled, university budgets were tightened, and travel was grounded. I saw a huge chunk of my income and immediate future disintegrate into cake crumbs, tears, and fears. My livelihood was at stake. But, I reminded myself, I had something of value to offer—and now was the time to clarify that to my community.

Did I need work? Yes, absolutely. But did others need something, too, to help them weather this unprecedented crisis? Yes, absolutely. We could all help one another.

This is the essence of networking. Networking is not “What can I take from you?” or “What can you give me?” Networking is a genuine act of generosity built upon “What can I offer you?”

Networking is always relevant; we always need new diverse sources of inspiration to help advance our careers and approach problems in new ways. This objective doesn’t cease because we are in a crisis. More importantly, it doesn’t cease for others in our community. That’s why networking, where we aim to craft win-win alliances, is useful at this time. It helps everyone in the system—and we could all use a hand.

So what exactly can you offer? I often hear grad students and postdocs express concern that they don’t have anything of use to share with established professionals. This is a myth. At the very least, you provide a unique point of view, buoyed by your singular experience and knowledge, and a new perspective to solve problems. You also provide your insight, expertise, curiosity, and ambition to contribute. Tangibly, you can collaborate on projects and leverage your skills, creativity, and even your networks to solve problems. The bottom line is that established professionals want to network with you.

To more precisely clarify what you can offer potential contacts, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What problems am I uniquely qualified to solve?
  • What value can I add to my contact’s project, team, organization, and field?
  • What challenges can I help them overcome, now and in the future?
  • What opportunities can we collaboratively pursue?
  • What can I do for them during this challenging time?

In parallel with these “what” questions, you also need to think about the “who.” You can certainly begin by contacting people who are working with and for organizations and in jobs that sound exciting to you. But remember that networking is an investment in long-term relationships, not just job hunting. Seek to diversify your network beyond your area of expertise, field, location, and interested professions and sectors; you need diversity of thought to be the most effective you. Online resources such as LinkedIn, association membership directories, and alumni associations are great ways to identify people you’d like to connect with.

When you’re ready to make contact, here’s the general strategy I’ve used for years, modified slightly for the current times: I send an email, noting that I hope this finds them and their family and colleagues safe and healthy. I state my interest in speaking to see how I can assist and serve as a resource. I ask for a short (15 minute) informal conversation to explore the opportunity to collaborate and to see how I may contribute to their efforts. Finally, I express gratitude for their consideration.  

I’ve been surprised by how many positive responses I’ve received during the pandemic. People have said they appreciate that I reached out and offered to help. I’ve also received a lot of noes and nonresponses. But I remind myself that these noes aren’t personal and are nothing to be discouraged about.

Every time I contact someone or have an informal chat (on Zoom these days), I refer to a series of principles I’ve developed to guide my networking path. These principles include:

Be a problem solver. Always seek to deliver value.

Be kind, empathetic, and compassionate. We never know everything that another person is going through, so go into each interaction with openness and generosity.

Be patient and respectful. Don’t expect an answer to your query right away; don’t incessantly contact people.

Be gracious. Express appreciation for the chance to chat.

Be easy to work with. Don’t make the other person’s job harder. If they ask you to follow up in 3 weeks, for example, do so.  

Be flexible and open to suggestions. As you learn more from your contacts about the challenges they’re facing and problems they’re trying to solve, adjust your perspective and approach as needed.

Be clear in what you can offer. As you learn about pain points that you can help alleviate, note exactly what you can contribute to address the issue.   

Be realistic. Offer only what you are able to follow through on.

Be resourceful. If there is another person or resource who is better equipped to help, don’t hesitate to make the suggestion. Doing so doesn’t minimize your value; it highlights it.  

Be kind to yourself. Don’t discount or throw away your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

As a result of those emails I sent out in the spring, I ended up booking quite a few webinars. In fact, I am now speaking more than ever. But more importantly, I have started to build new partnerships that can enable all of us to move through and hopefully beyond the pandemic.

When we share our authentic enthusiasm and generosity, we can make a big difference in one another’s careers and lives. We all have something of value to offer. We all have ways we can care for ourselves together with our community.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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