Think about the people who have made the biggest impact on your life — the friends, family, and teachers who have invested in you as a person. They push you to be better, can be a sounding board for bold new ideas, and have your back when you’re facing life’s harshest challenges.
The road to professional success can be tumultuous, and as you navigate the highs and lows, it’s equally important to have these kinds of people in your work life, too. Rewarding professional relationships are critical to your career and need to be nurtured as authentically as ties to friends and family. If you find yourself floating around solo on your jobs journey, there’s a good chance you may be doing it wrong.
When it comes to building a reliable professional community, we could all benefit by taking a lesson from career guru, speaker, and teacher Andy Whelan, a career coach at General Assembly’s San Francisco campus.
Whelan started his unlikely path as a pre-med student before catching the acting bug, which led to his time as a comedian with Second City alongside rising stars like Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz. His career aspirations eventually moved beyond comedy, and he found his voice as a teacher, mentor, and coach for students striving to transform their professional lives. In his role as a career coach at GA, Whelan works with full-time students throughout their courses and beyond graduation to give them the tools and encouragement they need launch careers in web development, data, and design.
I recently spoke with Whelan for an episode of Making Ways, my new podcast about the unexpected paths to a creative career. While our conversation spanned a variety of career topics and advice, I thought Whelan’s tips for networking — or, rather, for building a community — were especially remarkable.
It’s time to throw away the paper-thin, business card-swapping “networking” mentality, and instead follow your friend-making intuition to forge the authentic community you need. Start finding your people with these four steps.
1. Make your best first impression.
Although the band Radiohead claimed in the title of a documentary that meeting people is easy, it’s not. If it were, people wouldn’t have to write articles like this to demystify the art of “networking.” But it needn’t be so hard or so stressful. When connecting professionally, people all too often get hung up on the outcome of an exchange — grabbing business cards, gauging whether someone can help you with a project — and forgetting to simply listen, get to know, and even enjoy the person standing right in front of them.
To start off on the right foot, you first need to focus on you. Whelan says, “The first part is to know who you are and how people perceive you.” One way to do this is to listen to how your friends introduce you the next time you’re out and about. Paying attention to the characteristics your friends focus on can be a real eye-opener. It’s a great starting point to developing a professional community — and in some cases, identifying opportunities to make positive changes in your behavior.
“I work with people to help them understand, when they walk into a room or when they speak with somebody, how others perceive them — because it could be very different from what or who they think they are,” he says. “Then I coach them on starting to make really specific choices on how they want to represent themselves and what they’re looking to build out of these relationships.”
2. Approach people like you’re making new friends.
We’ve all had to make friends at some point, whether it was our first night away at college in a new town, or that first day at snack time in kindergarten. We’ve built up some serious interpersonal skills over the years by just being people — why not capitalize on them professionally? Here’s a primer:
- Gravitate toward your tribe.
Just like when you were on the playground, follow your interests to find like-minded people. If you’re going to an event, concert, or fundraiser, you automatically have something in common with the people there. Your passion for that thing brought you out — leverage it to your advantage.
- Find common ground.
There’s something comforting about meeting a stranger and then realizing you have mutual friends. It’s social proof to ground that person in a reality you already know and trust. When you meet someone for the first time, find that common ground as quickly as possible. It won’t necessarily be in the form of mutual friends — perhaps you work in the same industry, went to the same college, or share a hobby. The fastest way to discover it, is by listening.
- Be giving.
The fastest way to ingratiate yourself with a potential new friend or professional connection is by offering value. This can be as simple as sharing advice or turning them on to something new. Right off the bat, you’re establishing that you have a lot to offer and want to make the other person’s experience in life or business better. Who wouldn’t want to keep that kind of conversation going?
Keep in mind that lasting friendships aren’t one-and-done affairs. They require give and take and a little work, but you’re rewarded with a lasting support system. Fostering professional relationships is the same animal in a different setting.
As Whelan explains, improving your networking skills “goes back to thinking about how you originally became friends with people in the first place. You were probably put together through unusual circumstances. Networking is a little more artificial.” But the core tenets of friendship-building remain the same.
3. Always be hosting.
If you’re looking to break into a field that’s pretty distant from your current job or just want to pursue an interest in a community in which you have no connections, the notion of meeting people can be pretty daunting: “What will I say? I’m not an expert in this, so how can I be of value? I’m a phony. Help!”
Put all those nerves aside and follow some of the best advice Whelan’s ever heard.
“When you go to [networking] events, pretend you’re the host,” he suggests. “Because how do you behave when you’re the host? You want to take care of people and make sure they’re OK. You’re going to ask them questions and make it more about them. That really gets that person to open up to you.”
By getting into a host’s mindset, you’ll give new connections a chance to flourish and create the space to find common ground, even if you’re not as interested in, or comfortable with, the topic your new connection is talking about. It’s a refreshing tip that takes the focus off of you and puts the spotlight onto the person you’re looking to connect with. Try it at your next meetup, and while you’re at it, maybe your next date, too.
Another benefit of this philosophy is that it stops those boring, everyday networking questions — you know the type: “Where do you live? What do you do? Who do you work for? And what are you looking to do here?” — in their tracks. Whelan adds, “Everyone has an aversion to networking because they feel like it’s so artificial. If you can go to an event and you’re genuinely looking to build relationships long term, everyone benefits.”
4. Say goodbye to transactional exchanges.
It might sound cliché, but it’s true: Connecting authentically has to be your prime directive. That means going beyond the basics of job titles and getting to know what the person cares about, and opening up about what drives you too. The people you meet with will feel that passion and build on that connection.
Making and fostering professional relationships is not just about who can help you find a job right now. If you go into a room with that limited outlook, you set yourself up to miss real opportunities. Whelan paints a picture of how the scenario could play out. “If I meet you and you can’t help me, I run to the next person,” he says. “Then, I don’t get a chance to build that relationship with you down the road and maybe collaborate with you on something powerful in the future.”
There are also practical reasons to prioritize building a community over accruing a stack of business cards. Whelan says it best: “Whether you’re a designer or a data scientist, or working in a specific geographic market, you need a community around you because technology changes quickly and you’ll need people to help you along the way” as industries shift and evolve.
That’s right — community makes you better at your job and equips you with the foresight to see what’s around the bend in your business or industry. More brains equals greater insights.
“No one likes to be on an island,” Whelan says. “If I’m the only one who does what I do, I have no one to collaborate with,” and collaboration is key. “The other coaches I work with, both at General Assembly and in the community in San Francisco and California, are my sounding board. We talk about what I’m working on and what they’re working on. That’s more critical than ‘I need to meet this person, can you connect me with them.’ I’m looking to find out how I can be someone to help you, and then we’ll see what happens after that.”
Below, listen to the full episode of Making Ways for more insight into Whelan’s winding path, and hear his advice for anyone seeking a job shift.
Thanks to Andy for his fantastic insights on ditching networking and building community. Learn more about Andy at www.makingways.co and on LinkedIn, and look him up at General Assembly during your next visit to San Francisco. You can hear Andy’s full interview on Making Ways on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud. And you can follow along with more unexpected paths to creative careers at @making_ways.
At General Assembly, explore innovative, career-transforming courses in web development, user experience design, data science, and more — online and at campuses across the globe. Both during and after our transformative full-time courses, students receive personalized job-search support from expert career coaches like Andy to help them pave a path in their new field.