Strategic Shine: Tips for Authentic Networking

The original version of this article was published in Black Business Ink Magazine in December 2014.

Recent studies show that societies and organizations thrive when its members are able to be authentic. In November 2016 business psychologist, Dr. Rebecca Newton, published an article in Forbes listing 7 ways authenticity leads to success. These successes include clarity about our priorities, adaptability through self-correction, and overall happiness. Living an authentic life can be deeply fulfilling, as you don’t waste precious time and energy having to reconcile multiple identities. Aaaaaahhh...

Yet, authentic expressions from certain groups have not always been met with the same openness and consideration. There’s a gap here.

In May 2013, Dr. Patricia Lewis published an article in the journal, Gender, Work, & Organization, entitled The Search for an Authentic Entrepreneurial Identity: Difference and Professionalism among Women Business Owners. In it, she cites Dr. Rebecca Erickson of the University of Akron, who wrote that people who are part of an oppressed group (like women, minorities, etc.) are more likely to find themselves in the predicament of having to make a tough choice - Do I... a) behave in a manner that is true to my genuine self and in alignment with my core values, or b) behave “according to the demands and requirements of powerful others?”

It’s bothersome to consider that there are “demands” and “requirements” made of an individual that are incongruent with their genuine nature. Can you imagine what it does to a person’s psyche to work a 40-hour week (or more) for an organization in which their true self has no room to emerge without fear of being criticized or alienated?

Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever wrote an editorial about two modern-day examples of what she calls “the normalcy of disrespect” against authentic Black women, specifically. She references Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s recent treatment of White House Correspondent April Ryan and Bill O’Reilly’s treatment of Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Addressing the challenges these women - and others like them - face in the workplace, Jones-DeWeever states, “we navigate a world of constant indignities. And in spite of it all, we still find a way to shine.”

Indeed. We must still find a way to shine. The leaders who have inspired me most are those who have been committed to authenticity and strategic action. And if they belong to a typically oppressed group, yet somehow transcend the limitations placed on them by others… I’m seriously Disney-Princess-mesmerized.

I am a lover of words, a surveyor of actions, and a believer in the magic of both. I’ve seen and experienced some magnificent results from effective networking, and am eager to share how it can be fun and - dare I say it - exhilarating! It’s true, y’all.

First, we need to address the hindering beliefs surrounding the networking experience. When we believe that our destiny is in the hands of “powerful others,” we move, think, and speak in a manner that (whether we say it aloud or not) screams “Please, please pick me! If you don’t, I won’t make it.” As a result, we perceive networking as this gut-wrenching dance that’s required to gain the approval of others, and that’s rife with feelings of anxiety and rejection.

There is another way – a way that enables us to dance to our own unique rhythms, and to swerve quickly when we don’t get the responses we desire. We don’t have to allow our womanhood, Blackness, or any form of other-ness to spell doom for our personal and professional goals.

When done right, networking and relationship-building are powerful tools. These tools can enable us to connect with people who understand our passions, and who are willing to serve as bridges to opportunities that let us shine in whatever calling we’ve chosen to pursue.

If forced to narrow the lessons down to 3 essentials, here’s what they would be:

1. Be Courteous. Always. To everyone.

There’s a myth floating around that we can somehow see a person’s level of influence with the naked eye. As a result, we may encounter someone, glance at them momentarily, gauging their worth based on what they look like or what they may or may not be wearing. We, then, make a quick (often inaccurate) decision about whether or not to extend our courtesies to them.

This is a huge mistake. Not everyone wears influence (or lack thereof) on their person. Yes, there’s something to be said for discernment, insight, and “gut feelings” about folks. But, how many times have you encountered someone, only to find out later that you were completely wrong about them?

As a business owner or a career builder, courtesy and kindness are small characteristics that have the potential to yield massive results. In a moment’s encounter, you have the choice to be courteous with a smile and a “hello,” or to quickly look away, avoiding the acknowledgement of another’s existence. Effective communication would dictate a choice toward the former.

Extend courtesy in each moment because until they show you otherwise, every human, regardless of their net worth (perceived or real), is deserving of it.

2. Be Prepared

You need an elevator pitch. The term “elevator pitch” refers to the few sentences you might say in the event that you find yourself riding in an elevator with a person who has the power or influence to carry you to the next level of your career or business. The idea is simple: If you entered the elevator on the first floor and noticed that it was occupied by “Mr. or Mrs. Big,” or whomever held the keys to your windfall-of-choice, what would you say?

Many of us would choose to ride in silence, blubbering unintelligible sentence fragments in our own heads, only to kick ourselves once he or she walked themselves out on the 8th floor.

Deft minds must be prepared to seize opportunities. Say something. Be ready.

An effective elevator pitch has 3 main components: 1) a greeting, 2) an introduction, and 3) a request. It might sound something like this:

“Mr./Mrs. Big? It’s a pleasure meeting you. My name is Ready Freddy, and I really admire the work you’ve done in (insert field). My background is in (insert a quick, cool example of a recent accomplishment) and I’d love to (set up a time to meet with you/get some advice/talk about possible partnership/pick your brain). Do you have a card I can take with me?”

In most cases, whomever it is will at least be willing to pass along their contact information or refer you to their assistant… giving you the opportunity to actually follow up with a phone call or an e-mail.

There’s a delicate balance, however. You want to be direct enough to be taken seriously, but not so aggressive that your audience can’t wait for their floor’s arrival so they can bolt out the door.

If they decline? No problem. Here’s where the 3rd lesson comes in:

3. Be Resilient

Sometimes an encounter can be a bit of a flop. Maybe you tried to introduce yourself and he or she interrupted your eloquence with an answered phone call. Or maybe they chose not to practice lesson one, missing their own opportunity to be courteous to you. When we extend ourselves to try to connect with another, they have the choice as to whether or not to reciprocate. If they choose against it, nothing about their choice diminishes your worth. Let that sink in. Nothing about another person’s response to you can ever diminish your worth, your value, or your significance. Keep it moving.

This is the basis of resilience. When you KNOW this, and allow it to permeate your belief system, it becomes easier and easier to bounce back. Yeah, baby.

There’s no room for embarrassment. If you allow that feeling to settle in, it can dominate your thoughts and ruin your whole day. Or, God forbid, an entire season of life.

So, mind the magic of each moment. Be kind, be prepared, and be resilient. Do your own dance. Business as usual.

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