At Relationship Science, we’re constantly exploring new ways of leveraging the business potential of human relationships. That’s something that writer, editor and behavioral economics expert Gary Belsky knows a little something about. With decades of experience in media, including as editor in chief at ESPN The Magazine, Belsky has picked up more than a few networking tricks. So we asked to pick his brain on the most important relationship-building lessons he’s learned. If having a stronger professional network is one of your resolutions this year, you’ve come to the right place.
My motto is “hyper engagement, minimal annoyance.” People are generally too interested in “closing” things, but that’s where people start to get annoyed and feel put-upon. When I’m meeting new people, I’m not angling to make a sale—I’m trying find a connection and have an interesting conversation.
What’s the best way to follow up with a new contact?
The best kind of networking is peripheral, but obvious. I like to make it clear to people what I’m offering or what I’m looking for, but in a way that makes it seem like it’s not central to the relationship. So, if I had a great conversation with someone about, say, digital marketing trends, I might send them an article on the topic. That reminds them of our conversation—about issues I’m having, about what I’m interested in—in a way that makes my professional interests clear, but isn’t overly pushy.
How should you ask your contacts for favors?
People appreciate honesty because it saves them the time of wading through insincere fluff. And I always end requests by completely absolving them of obligation of responsibility. In a funny way, just letting someone know that they have the option to say “no” makes it more likely that they’ll want to say “yes”—or, at the very least, “No, but I know someone else who might be a ‘yes.’”
How should employees approach building relationships with supervisors and higher-ups?
This is one place where it’s even more important to be obvious—and even a little blatant—in your approach. When people are schmoozing with their superiors, they’ll often say flattering things like “I really want to understand your journey” or “I want to understand how you got to be where you are.” Most bosses can see right through that. It’s better to just be open and explicit: Say that you’re trying to build your internal network, and that you think this person would be a good person to know. Odds are they’ll appreciate your ambition.
How can bosses encourage their employees to build strong internal networks?
It all comes down to modeling the behavior you want to see. You can also use your own cross-departmental network to make blind dates. At ESPN The Magazine, because I was higher up on the ladder, I knew people in different parts of the company, and I would tell people under me to have meetings or coffee chats with specific people in other departments. Once you’ve made it clear that having a well-connected team is a priority for you, your best employees will naturally start implementing that behavior.
What’s one small step for a networking newbie to take towards a stronger network in the new year?
Go get lunch with someone you have no reason to talk to, like a former colleague or an old classmate. Have a conversation about your professional goals and interests. That’s a great step on its own, but if you really want to get the ball rolling, identify at least one contact that the other person mentioned who it might be beneficial for you to meet, and ask for an introduction to that person.