In An Uncertain Economy, Networking Is Millennials’ Social Safety Net

Today’s new workforce entrants and soon-to-be college grads face a rapidly-evolving gig economy, as well as the prospect of multiple career switches and necessary, unpaid labor of online self-promotion and brand building. In an era where it seems as though the only certainty, aside from death and taxes, is hyperconnectivity, a young worker’s best hope for a safety net is the establishment of a solid professional network, according to Kelly Hoey, a former lawyer turned tech investor, author and networking guru.

Fresh from a Thursday talk at Lower Manhattan Headquarters in New York’s Financial District on how to publish a book — which she did, in January — Kelly sat down with International Business Times to discuss the importance of bragging, becoming known for one skill and not five, doing your research and still communicating professionally with other humans face-to-face, not just via Twitter.  The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

In the past decade, how has the networking landscape changed, with the advent of LinkedIn, Twitter and other modes of connecting online? Obviously it makes connecting and keeping track of your contacts easier and more streamlined, but what challenges does it present, especially to young people who’ve recently graduated and are just starting their careers? Has promoting and presenting yourself online become a whole new burden, almost an unpaid side-job, for professionals in certain industries?

One of the things I think is great about all the social media platforms is that, besides making it easier to stay in touch with people, it has democratized our access. And so now you can get in a room and have a conversation with people that you may never have had a chance to meet before.

But you still need to have those human skills because, [with] those platforms, the danger and one of the downsides is we think it’s one-way marketing, or we think it’s endless promotion, or you think that with a click, you’ve now built a relationship or a friendship, where really it takes time to build those relationships.

I also think we live in an era of not who you know or what you know, but who knows what you know. So the upside of these platforms is that you can show people what you know. People are looking for talent. They’re looking for experience. They’re looking for certain skill sets. So now you can share that in a way that is authentic and real, share what you know in the self-promotion in a good way… If you’re not bragging for yourself then, you know, who is? Or, as Muhammad Ali said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

So how can you promote yourself in that honest way so that you know you’re being found for the skills and experiences you want to be found for?

With the growth of these online platforms for networking, has the importance of face-to-face connections and living in an industry hub, such as Silicon Valley for tech workers or Washington D.C. for people in the policy world, decreased, or is it still a networking mainstay?

Face-to-face is still important, vitally. I would say mobile [and] digital may have rewired us in a lot of ways, but they haven’t completely rewired us. We are still tribal, we are still, as I say, Neanderthals. Until we look someone in the face and in their eyes, you don’t make that same connection.

But your relationship could start online. It could start because of a tweet. It could then… be reinforced with a connection on LinkedIn. But then, you’ve got to get the face-to-face [interaction] in.

I’m thinking of one friend in particular: We initially connected over a hashtag on Twitter. We were all sort of aggregating around the same conversation with a hashtag. It then moved to… private conversations, and… then to a direct message that said, “Why don’t we go on FaceTime, because we clearly have a lot in common?” And the first time Lucy and I got on FaceTime, it was like hands-on-the-screen, like the sorority sisters who’d finally found themselves after 20 years. And then I got an email, and I remember, I was on a flight back from Chicago… and I called my ex-husband and I said, “I should be coming home from the airport, but instead I’m going to a dinner in Midtown.” And everyone around that table but for two people had not met [in person] until that moment. And Lucy had organized a dinner at a Midtown steakhouse and that was like this [locking fingers together] with the glue.

So you’d still need to figure out the face-to-face, but it could be FaceTime, it could be Skype. There are other ways to do that face time.

Do you have to be in those hubs? Not 24/7. In politics or in tech, you can start building those relationships wherever you are, because of podcasts, because of blogs. Get on the newsletters for the community you want to be in and figure out when you need to be in those places. You can have already educated yourself.      

But you also [have to be] building relationships with those people so that when you step into that in-person networking, you’ve already got a rapport, you’ve already had those conversations.

I think we’re at an interesting point where we have this friction between online and offline.

Where we’re afraid to make the jump from the former to the latter?

They’re either afraid or — you know, there’s still a generation that thinks this social media thing is going to go away. There’s a [separate] generation where that’s where the relationship-building started. But I don’t like to paint millennials with that [stereotype of] “they’re just the digital generation.” This is the same generation where we’ve seen the rise of coworking spaces, collaboration spaces, like LMHQ. You’ve seen the rise of meetups… People still want to get face-to-face information, so you’re seeing all of that…

If you go to Pew and the research they’re doing, the biggest uptick in social media right now is the Silent Generation, Boomers… They’re [representing] the biggest uptick on mobile and on social. When I sit in an airport and watch a bunch of grandparents take selfies, let me tell you, there’s a part of me that wants to giggle hysterically, and the other part of me is like, “This is how we communicate now, and we’re just being human.” And I think we’re getting to a point now where we’re just going to understand that our relationships are flowing naturally between all of these different communication channels: In-person, online, offline, a text — all of the stuff is just going to start working together.

Another trend among young workers is the tendency to have multiple careers, or jobs in a variety of sectors or industries, rather than working your way up the ladder in just one — a phenomenon with which you’re personally familiar . How does that manifest itself in how we establish a network, when you have to know not only the key people in your industry, but key people in several?

This is where in some ways millennials have the leg up. I think about, you know, when I was in my teens and in college, if you wanted to stay in touch with someone, you had a pen pal. It involved a stamp, and an address, and if someone moved and didn’t tell you where they moved, how do you find them? You’ve got these tools and ways to stay in touch with people [now].

And the relevance of that is there may be a time in your life when someone is really close to you, and that’s where you have that tight, deep, narrow network that might be your college friends, that might be the people in your first job, whom you were going through an analyst or internship program with. We all have sort of a narrow, deep network at some point.

But the opportunities and what you’re hitting on — we’re going to have multiple careers and multiple jobs — is careers and opportunities come from having that broad, shallow network. And some of that is things you need to cultivate, and some of that is the natural flow of relationships that extend out. Your college roommate, who, five years later, six years later, you don’t see so often — that’s when that relationship kind of flows out to this broad-shallow network.

Stay in touch with those people. That means friending them on Facebook or following them on Snapchat or making sure you’ve got their LinkedIn profile. Send them that holiday card, give them that birthday message. Whatever it may be, you don’t have to see that person every week. But if you keep that broad-shallow network, that’s where you’re going to have these different opportunities.

Take a look at your network, and if you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m doing this right now, whatever this is” — for me at one point, I was a lawyer, and then I wanted to move into management, and I didn’t have a management network, I didn’t have the connections, and I was looking for a job. That was word of mouth. I had to build that network. So if you’re already understanding that you’re going to have two or three careers and this is just where you’re starting, start networking towards that second or third career. Look and make sure that your network, both in terms of relationships that flow outward, that you’re staying in touch with those people, but also say, “Hey, how do I start filling this shallow network in?” Through courses, through meetups, coworking space, getting to know people who do this, whatever it takes.

A big challenge of networking, especially when you combine this ‘shallow deep network’ across industries and the use of digital platforms, is, unfortunately, trying to make a meaningful connection without coming off as superficial or opportunistic. What’s your advice on forming genuine, sincere professional relationships?

I think that’s a challenge for every generation, in terms of coming off as opportunistic. Where I put this is, there’s so much information that’s out there. I don’t care if you’re a Boomer, a GenX or a millennial. If you aren’t thoroughly taking advantage of the digital footprint that people are leaving out there, [you need to do] research.

This is the greatest use of social media and the internet in terms of networking. You can get so much information. For someone to email me and say, … “Hey, what are you up to these days, Kelly?” I’m like, “Really?” [Spend] three minutes on my profile — a little curiosity before reaching out.

Particularly in the startup world, people are like, … “I wonder if I could pitch [to]” name the name of a big [venture capital firm]. [The firms and their executives are] writing blogs. They’re tweeting. They’re telling you what they’re interested in, how they like to be approached, what they do. If you aren’t spending some of your networking time just doing that deep-dive research, there’s where you’re creating your own challenge. There’s where you are now reaching out to that person, [and] you now appear opportunistic.

And insincere.

Right. And if you do all that research, you can sincerely reach out and say — I’ll take from my own career for example — if you said, “Hey Kelly, I’m a lawyer and I’m looking to make that same career transition. I’ve read these blogs. I’ve also read the part in your book where you talk about that. Here’s the one thing I still have a question on.” I’m happy to take that email. I’m happy to pick up the phone and answer that question. But somebody who hasn’t taken advantage of all that’s out there? By doing that research, you can ask a better question, and then you’re not being opportunistic.

Lastly, freelancing appears to be taking off, not only among gig economy workers but among tech workers with in-demand design and engineering skills as well. How has this increased the importance of building a strong network?

This sort of hits on your last question about people having multiple jobs as well. You need to find out — whether it’s in-person or online — what it is you want to be found for. And sometimes, I think, with this freelance [work], with this gig economy, people are networking too much. I don’t know what work to send you. What is the skill set? What is your highest and biggest priority? You may not want to be known for five things. If you have on there that you’re a photographer, you’re a copy editor, you’re a project manager, you’re a fill-in-the-blank on the fourth thing, what work should I send you? Photography work? Project management? What is it? I think that’s a thing to be careful of.

This whole thing with the gig economy… I think it is an economic reality. I think there’s a lot of people who are doing it because they don’t have another choice. I think there’s a way we glamorize all of this because we don’t have a jobs plan for [millennials]. We don’t know where the next jobs are going to be. We don’t know if we will have another hundred-year company. People and Wall Street analysts can predict or celebrate the demise or non-demise of [International Business Machines Corp.], but will we ever have companies like that again, where we will have that longevity?

So I think we need to find ways to really help people who, either by choice or by necessity, freelance. I think if you are choosing that and embracing it as “this is the way I want to live,” you’d better be spending a lot of really quality time beyond… your expertise and what you want to be found for. If you’re scraping by and taking everything that comes your way, you’d better be heavily invested in your relationships. Because we refer people through word of mouth and we work with people who we can rely on [for] the quality of the work and [for] the reputation and the personality.

So if you are saying, “I’m going to be a gig economy person,” you’d better be part of that network and that community. So I hope you’ve done some internships, I hope you’ve had some opportunities within big companies, I hope you’re making it a priority and a strategy of how you keep all those people in your network, because they’re going to be fueling [your] opportunities. So, networking and people skills — [that’s the] bottom line — are going to be more important than ever in this economy.

Like a safety net.

It is, because we don’t know what skill set [we need]… We already said, “Well, everyone should learn to code.” But machines may do coding for us, so what’s next? Knock on wood — we still need people skills.

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