Whether you are actively looking for a job, seeking to develop business, or working to build professional relationships that will help advance your career over the long haul, you know that networking is key. Most people don't take full advantage of their networks because they define them too narrowly and feel more comfortable reaching out to close friends than to more distant acquaintances. It can be scary to make an overture to people you don’t know well, or it may feel weird to ask for help from a relative stranger or someone you haven’t seen in ten years.
Maybe you worry that you may annoy them. Will they think you are just trying to use them? Or perhaps you are afraid that you will come across as sales-y or desperate. Or maybe you are just plain scared of the risk of rejection. All of these fears can keep you from sending the email or picking up the phone. But, as Freakonomics reminds us, we are often very bad at calculating risk. Feeling awkward or embarrassed will not kill you. And when it comes to networking, the rewards way outstrip the risk.
It turns out that connecting with someone you don’t know well—what Stanford sociologist and researcher Mark Granovetter would call a “weak tie”—is more likely to reward you than reaching out to someone with whom you have a closer relationship. Weak ties include people you used to work or go to school with, the guy you met at a conference, friends of friends you once met at a wedding. In his research into social networks, Granovetter demonstrated that professionals who relied on weaker ties in their job searches had better results than those who relied on close ties.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you consider it, it makes all the sense in the world that weak ties are hugely valuable. Here’s why:
Higher Volume. You have more weak ties than strong ties. To some degree, finding the right opportunity is just a numbers game and you are going to uncover more opportunities or leads and gain more information by reaching out to more people.
Less Overlap. Weaker ties have access to information and people that differ from yours, while your closer ties tend to have more overlapping or redundant information. The more remote from you another person is, the more novel and potentially valuable information you will gain. Cast a wider net, you will catch more different fish.
Fewer Limiting Preconceptions. Another, more subtle reason to reach out to people who don’t know you well is that they are not bound by any preconceived notion of who you are or what you are capable of. They are more willing to see you as you want to be seen, and you are free to reinvent or reposition yourself more readily. Weaker ties are particularly important if you are trying to pivot or branch out.
Lower Risk for Them. You may ask yourself, “Why should a stranger help me?” The counter-intuitive answer is that people who are less invested in you may actually be more willing to help you because they feel less responsible for the results. They can make an introduction without vouching for you and say, “You can take it from here.” Just as I might be reluctant to set up my two best friends on a blind date for fear of repercussions if it goes south, I may not want to recommend my cousin for a job with my current employer. Sometimes having less connection is actually an asset!
Lower Risk for You. Finally, although it may feel uncomfortable to reach out to someone you don’t know well, the actual social consequences of rejection or embarrassment with someone remote from you are quite small. By definition, your connection is weak so it is unlikely that you will experience negative consequences if things don’t go well. You might as well give it a shot.
How to Start. Now more than ever, we need to be intentional about building our networks and staying in touch. And since it is all virtual, this is a great time to reach out to the outer expanses of your network. It’s simple. Look through LinkedIn or your email contacts and identify a few people who are at companies that you are interested in, who are doing interesting things or whom you would like to be in better touch with. If you feel awkward about reaching out, you’re on the right track! Keep your email short and positive with a clear request. In most instances, you will not be rejected. You may be ignored … so make sure not to read too much into a non-response and follow up (my rule of thumb is 3-4 attempts before giving up). And even if you are rejected, remember that it is probably not much of a judgment on you because, by definition, your weak ties don’t know you very well.
The most likely outcome is that a good number of your outreaches will be well-received and you will find that, despite your confinement at home, you can grow your network and expand your world of information, opportunities, and possibilities.