You're not climbing a career ladder but rather floors in a building. Networking with the others on your floor efficiently expands your network.
You may have heard me speak about the importance of building a network that goes beyond your industry. Industry connections are certainly important, but building in network diversity–diversity of industry, of knowledge, and of experience–can provide more insight and opportunities than a network limited to your own field.
We often focus on the career ladder, but that model is too narrow, somewhat literally.
This can sound daunting. When you think about the network you created in your field, it took a lot of time. Your first connections are often to junior people. Unless you were lucky enough to find a rabbi, you didn’t start out meeting executives and big names in the field. Over time, by building your reputation and leveraging existing connections, you expanded your network and incorporated more senior people. Having to do this again and again from scratch in a new field seems exhausting and inefficient. The good news is you don’t have to.
When it comes to writing compelling fiction, Stephen King is at the top of his field. He’s also about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get–both physically and as a print author. If he wanted to connect with a big tech company, what would his process be? Would it be going to local tech events and trying to meet people and work his way up to Big Tech execs? Of course not; he’d call his agent, or some other senior level connection and ask for an introduction. He’s one to two hops from most anyone in Big Tech. And while he may not be in tech, even a cold call from Stephen King would likely get returned.
In other words, he’s climbed his ladder, and now he can connect with people at the top of other ladders. He doesn’t have to climb them from the bottom. When Michael Jordan wanted to play professional baseball, he didn’t have to go through the usual route. The Obama’s didn’t have to send in a resume to produce shows at Netflix.
You don’t have to be at the top of your ladder to benefit. No matter where you are, you can have access to others at your level in different fields. It’s more akin to a tall building where the apartment lines are each a different industry. Climbing the stairs to a higher floor can take some time, but once you’re on the floor, it’s not that hard to walk around and knock on doors in the different fields on that floor.
Very senior people often recognize the importance of having a network beyond their field. It’s not just that you can knock on the doors of those floors, but much like the premier floors of a hotel, there’s a lounge area where people hang out. The higher you go, the easier it will become to meet mirror peers, peers who look like you (i.e., are at your level), but aren’t in your industry.
No matter where you are, you can have access to others at your level in different fields.
Go to events targeted at people in your level, but in adjacent fields or across fields. Look for learning and development activities targeted at your experience level. Executive MBAs, for example, typically have people in the program 10-20 years into their career from various fields. You won’t run into someone just a few years out of college, nor are you likely to find someone who is an executive at a Fortune 500. It’s mid-career professionals looking to advance. While an executive MBA is a big commitment, executive education courses, or introductory management courses, if that’s the level you’re at, can provide the same level of experience. You can filter for people at your level outside of business events. For example, the people who join the museum circle donors for $500 a year meet others at that level at the circle donor events. Recent college grads can’t afford $500 a year and more senior people who give larger donations and go to more exclusive events, but you will meet other people at that level, just like you.
Obviously, you don’t have to stay on your floor. While everyone wants to climb higher, and meet even more powerful and more connected people, don’t forsake those on the lower floors. First, likely people more senior than you helped you out, e.g., bringing you as a guest to their floor (some exclusive business function) even before you had moved up. You should do the same for others. Second, do it because sometimes the kids table is a lot more fun than the stuffy formal adult dinner conversation. More practically, if you wanted to know what social media platform will be hot in two years, you might be better off asking a twenty-year-old in Brooklyn who is glued to her phone, than a fifty-year-old working in midtown who reads the Wall Street Journal daily. Different people at different levels will have access to different perspectives. While higher floors are gated, you can usually pop down to lower floors easily.
We often focus on the career ladder, but that model is too narrow, somewhat literally. Thinking of all of us climbing floors in a building helps you realize it’s not just you and the people above and below you on a ladder, but a bunch of neighbors in your building all trying to reach their respective penthouses. Just as it’s easier to get to know people on your floor in an apartment building, only a little extra effort can help you meet mirror peers in other industries. Doing so will provide valuable connections so as you all climb to the top you can help each other out.
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