I have always felt uncomfortable with the concept of networking and, frankly, I’ve always felt that I’m bad at it. I hate small talk, I get overwhelmed by large events, I hardly remember my best friends' birthdays let alone that potential client I once met, and I don’t like to ask people for help. I’m better at it now than I used to be, but the thought of building relationships on the premise that they might be able to do something for me just never sat right.

And yet one day not so long ago, one of my colleagues exclaimed that I have a huge network. I was a little taken aback at first but when I started to think about it, I realized that she was right. I actually do have what you might describe as a large network of interesting people, and a small deep network, many of whom would be considered experts in their fields and all of whom are awesome. I love to collaborate with other people and organisations on various projects, I have way more meetings per week than actually fit into my calendar and I actually genuinely really really like most of the people I come into contact with through my work, in fact some of them are now my friends.

So, what happened? And why hadn’t I seen it in that way before? Subconsciously, I guess, I had always just thought of my “network” as my “community”. And now, as a result, I am starting to think of “networking” as “solidarity”. And it isn’t just a question of semantics. Thinking of it like that has not only made me feel a whole lot more comfortable with it and it is changing the way I approach it.

The concept of networking is – whether we like it or not – tainted with the dregs of late-stage capitalism. We cannot develop a human relationship these days without trying to exploit it for monetary gain, personal branding or influencer status, or being told that we should. There is something inherent in the concept of networking which says: punch up. Go higher. Look for the “successful” people and surround yourselves with them. Whatever you do, don’t look down.

But where does that leave us as a society? With the increasingly fluid mix between work and life, what happens if we are always looking up. Who do we miss and – above all – do we risk losing ourselves in the game?

Networking is a means to an end. The end being personal gain. Community on the other hand is the end. It took me a long time to realise the importance of community. For several years I took my own community for granted. It wasn’t until significant parts of it disappeared from my life that I grieved it, and vowed never to take it for granted again.

Solidarity is a concept I probably would have scoffed at a few years ago. Too lefty, too old, too meh. Definitely not something for the professional heights at which I was ambitious to engage. But now, with the corona crisis, the rise in feminism, the rise in anti-racism, I cannot think of my own relationships in any other way. I want to build communities of solidarity. Of people who stand together not just through the good times, but through the bad and the goddamn average. Who might share their most recent “successes” but who will also share their anxieties, fears and failures. And who look up, down and sideways to find people who might not be on the same career path, but who might benefit from their expertise, experience, privilege or wealth and with whom, when working together, they can take on the world. 

And I know it means something because, for the last year, tbd* and our partners at The Arc have been running an experiment. An experiment in which we bring strangers together to peer-coach each other over an eight week period in what we call The Purpose Fellowship. Astrid, co-founder of The Arc and a very experienced coach teaches everybody the basics of coaching, we give them lots of other materials and tools and we provide the (virtual) space for them to meet. And time and again we are blown away by the feedback about the depth of the relationships that are built in just this short time:

"The Purpose Fellowship, and very especially our conversations with my Mastermind, allowed me to overcome the pressure, coming from myself mainly, but also from external voices, telling me TO FIND A JOB FAST, and this OPPRESSING FEELING of running out of time, and start thinking broader without all these self-built limitations. I am grateful for finding the space and time to think about, and explore new paths; and to connect again with myself and the feeling of being enough."

“Seeing new faces, discussing so openly with other people and sharing our concerns and fears; but also our ambitions and power, gave me lots of positive energy. It was very restorative."

"I thank you both deeply, for your own openness, opening up, for uncapping feelings and emotions and feeling feelings, for your empathy and compassion, for opening and holding this space and also that it is ok and good to be ‚too much‘"

“I had a great sense of connectedness with everyone on the programme. This is because you provided the space to meet as humans, to feel connected and co-create and to discover the best in ourselves and others.”

It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that the way humans network differs along gender lines. Not because of any inherent biological differences but rather out of socialisation and necessity. In fact, my experiences of “networking” precisely correlate with the results of several studies that demonstrate that women* network differently to men*. So I haven’t been networking badly after all, I just haven’t been doing it like a man. As Caroline Castrillon wrote for Forbes, “while men are focused on the short-term need, women are more focused on building long-term personal connections or friendships. Women often make contacts through people they know and tend to form smaller, deeper networks based on trust. They also frequently seek advice for both personal and professional needs. In contrast to men, women generally hesitate to ask for what they want out of a networking interaction. Instead, they think about what they can do for the other person first.”

Women are invariably told to build a large professional network, to demand more, ask for more, take up more space, “be more like men” in the workplace. Whilst there is certainly validity in encouraging women to be more confident, that confidence is not going to be drawn from constantly telling us how we are “wrong” but rather by focusing on what we are doing “right”, and encouraging more of that. And, as far as I am concerned, there is a lot right about an approach to networking that looks more like friendship, community building and solidarity.

So next time we are at an (online) networking event or feel the pressure to “build a [online] network”, how about we try reframing it? We could ask ourselves the following questions: “Who here needs my solidarity? How can I invite this person into my community?” It might even turn out to be fun. 

One quick fire way to building a community is to join The Purpose Fellowship. It is a wonderful community of over 200 people who are committed to change-making in a healthy, thoughtful and collaborative way. Applications for the next cohort are open now until 21st April. Apply here

About the Author
Naomi Ryland is co-founder of tbd*, where amongst other things she runs the Purpose Fellowship. She is author of Starting a Revolution: what we can learn from female entrepreneurs about the future of business and committed introvert and feminist.  

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