Networking Up and Down the Food Chain
I’ve been thinking about networking lately. Recently, I had a great meeting with a young lady I met maybe five years ago, when I revived a volunteer relationship with her organization. I found the volunteer activity personally rewarding and I took it seriously. There was an opportunity to sharpen a seldom-used skill that I find highly desirable and I saw to it that my work met or exceeded expectations. Scheduling prevented me from donating services for a couple of years, but I always responded to her outreach. When she asked to pick my brain about a program-related matter, which turned into a request for a face-to-face, I was happy to say yes.
Little did I know that the volunteer service, that is pro bono consulting work, would now pay a stipend. There is also an effort to grow the program. The organization has had trouble selling to the new target market and I was happy to suggest some talking points that should produce results. She took lots of notes. Sometime over the next few months, I expect that I will be invited to provide more pro bono work, this time with a very helpful stipend and a chance to gain access to individuals that I would like to add to my client list.
What’s the moral of this networking story? First, strategic volunteering can pay dividends and second, don’t hesitate to selectively network at both ends of the organization chart. Don’t assume that lower ranking people are never in a position to help you.
This young lady was the program coordinator, not a decision-maker, and she’s half my age. Nevertheless, I treated her with respect and always enjoyed working with her. When asked, I offered to give her some much-needed insights, without knowing that she is now in a position to help me make money.
Of course, we all dream of meeting a powerful person who will miraculously agree to become our sponsor and shepherd us into a fabulous career. That happens for some people, but it has yet to happen to me.
So how might one network successfully at the top of the organizational chart? I’ll propose that directing your networking overtures to the higher-ups toward those inclined to respect you and your professionalism, regardless of the obvious difference in job titles, is Rule #1. Remaining aware of the difference in power and status is Rule #2. Understanding how you might position yourself to be perceived as a valuable asset to an individual who has many resources is Rule #3 and effectively communicating that value proposition to Mr. or Ms. Higher-Up is Rule #4.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for networking up the food chain, but I’ve noticed that interacting with higher-ups is most successfully achieved on volunteer boards, in houses of worship, at the fitness center and in other non-work related venues. There are many people tugging at the sleeves of influential higher-ups and as a result, they seldom drop their guard. If networking is on your agenda, it’s preferable to get to know them in social situations that facilitate participating in shared priorities that can lead to organic relationship-building.