The Power of “Loose” Connections
September 07, 2018 | Filed in: Your Career
Whether you’re looking for a new job or just networking, the first instinct is to go to who you know—friends, former colleagues, and mentors who you have strong connections with—to find that next opportunity. But it’s actually loose or “weak” connections that can do the most for you. Here’s how to make the most of yours.
In 2011, when Kristen Lueck was living in Elon, North Carolina and looking for a job in New York City, she remembered something: Her college friend Chris had mentioned that his sister Jennie worked in the city. “That sparked my interest to proactively reach out and pick her brain about moving to the city and job searching,” she says.
Even though she’d never met Jennie before, Lueck texted Chris and asked for her contact information so she could email her. As it turned out, Jennie happened to be hiring at the time, and after a couple of phone calls and an in-person interview, Lueck landed a public relations job. “I always tell women looking for a new job to just reach out,” she says. “It never hurts to ask someone about their experience, and you never know who might know someone or be looking to hire.”
How Weak Ties Can Be Helpful
If you’re looking for a new gig, you shouldn’t just focus on the people in your immediate network (like your colleagues and your closest friends). Think about those who are one or even two steps removed from your inner circle—the people you don’t see or communicate with as often (if at all).
An often-cited landmark study that supports this method of job-hunting (“The Strength of Weak Ties“) was published in The American Journal of Sociology all the way back in 1973 by Mark S. Granovetter, the Joan Butler Ford Professor of Sociology at Stanford University in California. He found that among 282 white-collar professionals in the Boston area, about 28% said they found their current job through a connection they saw once a year or less. Meanwhile, 56% said they found their current job through a contact they saw more than once a year but less than twice a week, and only 17% said they found their current job through someone they saw at least twice a week.
What’s intriguing is that this study was done in the Rolodex days, well before smartphones and social media platforms took over our lives. Even during a time when it was harder to make and maintain weak connections, they were still very useful.
Why is that? One theory is that people who fall into this category are particularly helpful because they tend to travel in different social circles and work at different companies (or in entirely different industries). As a result, they often have access to different information and resources than your strong ties.
Why It’s Harder for Women to Take Advantage
Although it’s easier than ever to find and connect with loose ties, women are still more likely to face networking barriers that men don’t.
The first hurdle is finding the courage to reach out to someone for help. “Women can tend to shy away from asking for what they want, given their socialization growing up and how society ‘expects’ women to behave,” says Monica Forret, Ph.D, the Director of the Doctor of Business Administration Program at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa and a professor who has researched networking and gender issues. “This can come into play if women build a solid network, but do not use it to their advantage.”
The second impediment is that unconscious bias against women is still common. So even if you bravely ask for what you want, how will that be perceived? “Because women often suffer from a credibility gap arising from gender stereotypes, people may be less willing to stick their necks out for a woman they don’t know as well,” says Susan Fleming, Ph.D., a Senior Lecturer in in Management and Organizations at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, who has studied and speaks frequently on gender bias in the business world. Interestingly, research shows that both men and women hold these unconscious biases.
The third is that women today still tend to shoulder more family and household responsibilities than men, which may make networking outside typical work hours (like at evening happy hours) more challenging.
So, yes, guys still have it easier. What else is new? But that doesn’t mean that networking for women is a total dead end.
Networking with Loose Connections
Here are some creative workarounds that can help you artfully get past these stumbling blocks, bust through glass ceilings, and entice others to help you get the job you want.
1. Expand your reach.
The more first-degree connections (or strong ties) that you have, the more second- and third-degree connections (or loose ties) you’ll have. So don’t be afraid to invite more people to connect with you on professional networking platforms like LinkedIn (but try to form an in-person relationship first, if possible).
To meet more people at your company or within your industry, try arranging a regular networking lunch—whether it’s weekly, monthly, or quarterly (whatever is doable for you). Invite a person or a group of people you don’t know very well. This will force you to step outside your comfort zone and make you schedule time for networking on your calendar. Also, see if there are professional organizations that you can join or annual conferences you can attend for your industry.
Consider becoming more active within your community, too. Joining the PTA or another neighborhood board, taking an exercise class, or volunteering can be an excellent way to meet new people.
2. Do some (mild) stalking.
You don’t know who your second- and third-degree connections are until you look. Choose a few people you admire, like friends, colleagues, and former bosses with impressive jobs. (Men are usually ideal for this purpose, since they are more likely to hold positions of power in many fields, and more likely to be viewed by others as credible.) Scan their Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, and/or Twitter followers. Then make a list of any people you’d like to talk to or meet.
3. Get crafty.
Although in the age of Google it’s easier than ever to track down a stranger’s contact information, cold-emailing or cold-calling people might turn them off. Plus, there’s that pesky problem of gender bias. One potential hack, says Dr. Fleming, is to ask a “high-status” strong tie who is a mutual connection to introduce you. Though the stranger may not be especially inclined to do you a favor, he or she may not want to let down your mutual connection.
After all, what’s the point in having connections if you don’t ever tap into them? Of course, just be careful not to ask the same person for help too often, or else you may risk coming off as annoying.
4. Be delicate and specific in your ask.
Professional introductions to loose ties often happen in person or via email. Do some homework ahead of time if you can, so you can start the conversation with something light and engaging. Maybe, for instance, you learned through your mutual connection that this is a person who runs lots of marathons, loves dogs, recently had a child, or just got back from a trip to Italy, so find a way to reference that. Or simply compliment the person on a recent career accomplishment.
In other words, you don’t want to put the person on the spot and talk about your needs from the start. “You want to avoid making the other person feel defensive or that they are only being ‘used’ or spoken with because you think they can help you get a job,” says Dr. Forret. When you show interest in the other person and don’t make it immediately about you, the person may be more receptive.
Then, after you’ve been chatting with the person for a little while, think carefully about what you want. Don’t say something vague like, “Could you help me get a job?” Say something more along the lines of: “Is your company hiring for any marketing positions?” or “I’m applying for X position at your company. Could you please give my résumé directly to Tom Smith, the hiring manager there?”
“People love to help, but they need to be told what to do. So make it easy for them,” says Neely Raffellini, a career coach and the founder of the 9 to 5 Project, an organization that helps women get the tools they need to find jobs they love.
If the loose tie does provide you with some assistance, a classy touch is to mail handwritten thank-you notes to both the loose tie and the strong tie.
5. Keep in touch.
If the loose connection is friendly and helpful, try to keep that relationship going. This could mean inviting the person to have coffee every now and then if you live in the same area. Or maybe it involves making occasional comments on social media (like congratulating the person on a promotion you noticed via LinkedIn or wishing them “Happy Birthday” on Facebook) or sending the person a holiday card once a year. The interactions don’t have to be long or intense to be effective.
“Keep those connections warm,” says Raffellini. The goal is to gently stay on that person’s radar without seeming overly needy. That way, if an appropriate job opening does present itself down the road, your loose tie may think of you.
Starting this fall, we’ll be hosting “loose connections” parties in our showrooms around the country to help MM women tap into new networks and make the most of those loose ties. Interested in hosting one of these soirées in your home city, or just want to learn more? Email us!