Q&A: Inga Carboni on networking in the New Year

While many may vow to do more networking in the New Year, some don’t know where to start while others avoid it altogether as something distasteful or dishonest. But Inga Carboni says that networking is something we all already do and is beneficial to everyone involved.

Carboni, an associate professor at Williams & Mary's Raymond A. Mason School of Business, is the author of 2019’s “Connect the Dots How to Build, Nurture, and Leverage Your Network to Achieve Your Personal and Professional Goals.” Her research focuses on networks and networking, diversity and inclusion, building and managing relationships and leadership. Her research was most recently featured in an article on “The Secrets of Successful Female Networkers” that appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review.

W&M News recently talked with Inga Carboni about a way to think about networking that can minimize people’s concerns and empower them to mingle more.

What exactly is networking and why is it so important, both professionally and personally?

Networking is building relationships. It is building, nurturing and eventually leveraging those relationships, and it's something that we all do. But few of us do it thoughtfully or like to think about it. It's incredibly important because so much of your work, your physical health, your social and emotional well-being all comes through the relationships that you have in your life, so it's critical. We know that the impact of your social network on your mortality is greater than the combined impact of cigarette smoking and obesity.

Why don’t people like to network? How can they get past the idea that it’s superficial or dishonest?

I think people have this idea that networking is schmoozing, that it’s using people. The truth is it should be reframed as building relationships, which we all do all the time. And when you build your relationships, you're building mutual relationships.

Very few of us stay in relationships where there isn't give-and-take and there aren’t things that we enjoy going both ways. I think once people start reframing networking as relationship building, then they start thinking just like they might in their personal relationships. It is not about getting something. It's about how can you start a mutually giving relationship, and the best way to do that is to start by giving, whether it's an insight, it's gratitude, it’s energy — all different kinds of things.

Another thing I hear from people is that they think networking is cheating, that you're trying to get by on who you know, rather than on what you know. What I say to that is if you ever want to take a leadership role in your professional life, you need to lead. To lead, you need to influence people. To influence people, you need to have relationships with them to be able to work with them. So if you can't build those kinds of relationships, you can't lead. In other words, it's not like a shortcut to success. Knowing how to build relationships that help you lead is a leadership skill.

What can people do to create those relationships?

One thing is to get a little outside of their comfort zone. If we're left to our own devices, we will naturally build relationships with people who are just like us and see the world very similarly. We should think about how we can create opportunities to connect with people outside of our usual patterns. For instance, join a task force or serve on panel for a topic that you are coming at from a different industry or different area of study. Take these opportunities to meet people whom you may have something in common with but who are not just like you.The cover of Carboni's 2019 book "Connect the Dots"

That's a very simple way, and it's most effective when you do it related to things that matter to you. This is precisely why a lot of people get onto boards of nonprofit organizations. They do it because they're passionate about the nonprofit, and it's also a great opportunity intersect with other people they might not ordinarily intersect with and who share a passion for this. People see each other working together, and you get to know each other. So think about being strategic about giving yourself those kinds of opportunities.

Once you have a good network in place, what can you do to nurture it, even if you don't have a lot of time?

This is when social media is quite helpful. This is when LinkedIn is very good, where you can push out information for the most part and post occasional thoughts or events in your life and keep up with other people. A colleague here who's a digital marketing expert says 10 minutes a day is probably all you need to do to that, and you can probably bundle that into one hour a week or something like that if you wanted to. So that's a super easy way to do it, and then that offers opportunities to have just a quick note on someone's birthday or when they accomplish some kind of milestone.

And I know other people — I admire them for this because I just never do it — send handwritten notes, not just when they go for a job interview, but whenever someone's helped them or benefited them or gone out of their way.

In your book, you mention the challenges with networking that people from underrepresented groups face. What are those? And how can they be addressed?

I'll talk about one that sort of faces all underrepresented groups. By underrepresented, we mean that there are other groups that are overrepresented in positions of power and status and influence and have access to resources. If we follow our natural tendencies, we hang out with people who are like us and feel just a little bit more comfortable with people who are like us. If you're from an underrepresented group, you're much more likely to be connected to people who are lower in power, and that's a huge disadvantage. And if you're from an overrepresented group, then you are much more likely to be connected to people who are in power.

I think it's worth sharing that insight with people, not just for the people from underrepresented groups to understand that that's an invisible disadvantage that they face and that there are steps that they can take to reduce that disadvantage. But I also think it's very useful for people who are overrepresented because I think they often just kind of lack of awareness because you're not thinking about it. You're thinking about who you like to talk to and who you see in the halls and who you stick your head into their office. You're not sort of thinking to yourself, well, I’ve got to make sure I hit three women and two people from minority groups and that kind of thing. But sometimes if you reflect, you might find, oh, well, when I look around me and I look at who I socialize with they look remarkably similar. When we're providing opportunities, am I looking at people and seeing their accomplishments and what they're doing? Or am I just going with what I'm a little bit more comfortable with?

For women in particular, which is where my research is mainly, they have a heightened disadvantage in that people are more likely to judge them negatively if they are perceived to be building professional relationships. Because they're not supposed to do that. They’re just supposed to be nice, right? There’s this classic thing that women have to do of balancing appearing competent and being liked, because the more you're liked, the less competent you’re perceived as. The more competent you’re perceived as, the less liked you are — it’s very hard to sort of balance both. But what women can do is leverage what is our often strong relationship-building skills to communicate warmth. Warmth and competence are a lot easier to search for than being liked and competent. And when you do that, you're generally getting a more positive reception to perceptions that you are relationship building.

When the time comes to leverage a network to advance your career or make another ask, how can people do that while maintaining those relationships?

Well, if you reframe networking as relationship building — that they’re mutual, two-way relationships — that's not really so much of a problem. I tell the story about a student that I had years ago who was horrified by the idea of networking, and I started talking to her, and I asked her what she was doing for the summer. She told me she was going to be waitressing at her boyfriend's mother's restaurant. And I asked her where she was living, and I find out that her roommate’s sister had a friend that she was going to be living with that person for the summer. I said, so you're using your boyfriend and you're using your roommate to get these things? And she's like, no, no, no, no, no. They wanted to.

If you've built your networks correctly, people want to help each other. If you think about your friends calling you and asking you if you can you recommend a good computer person or something like that, you want to help them. So it's not really a dichotomy: I'm going to either use you or I'm going to have a good relationship. Instead, it’s I'm going to have a good relationship where we share resources and we benefit each other in ways that we can.