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The pandemic and its consequential layoffs threw into stark relief the need for professional and personal connections. During 2020, the World Economic Forum estimates 114 million people lost their jobs. The Financial Times reported the number of conversations between LinkedIn members jumped 55 percent in March 2020 versus March 2019.
“Without having my network, I wouldn’t be sat where I am today. I have built what I call ‘professional privilege’ in terms of the types of people and contacts that I have been able to amass over the years,” says Daniel Peters, who founded Fashion Minority Report (FMR) in 2020. Today, FMR works with clients like Farfetch, Asos, British Fashion Council and Belstaff to create more inclusive and diverse workplace cultures through strategic consultations and workshops.
Building out a professional network is regularly cited as a crucial component of success in one’s career. Your network can act as a sounding board, help you problem solve, platform and champion your work, or provide connections to further your career development.
“The majority of jobs — 50 to 80 percent — are filled through networks. So, you can still apply for jobs, but that is the reality of building relationships over time,” says Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, an online networking hub for creatives with a community of nearly 1 million. The Dots is also the technology provider of community platforms for the University of Arts London and Soho Works.
However, the act of growing a network feels, to many, a monumental and intimidating task. So, BoF sat down with fashion professionals, organisational behaviourists and the founder of a global networking platform, to gather their advice and actionable insights on how to network as a fashion professional today.
The concept of “networking” is today a seemingly clinical, impersonal term. Harvard Business School published a research paper in 2014 entitled The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty.
“‘Network’ is such a scary word. It used to make me feel quite sick,” says Jamieson. “When you are at an event, being able to realise that everyone else is there to network gets you over that original barrier. [Then,] one of the most powerful things at events is just to wear a smile. I used to get so nervous when networking in the early days, so when I smiled, I tricked my brain into thinking I was happy. It helps the nerves go away.”
You are constantly, subconsciously building out a network, as current and former colleagues, friends and former classmates, make up a professional network. A useful place to start is actively connecting with peers — those at your own seniority level or similar age group — who will often be experiencing similar concerns and developments as you.
The majority of jobs — 50 to 80 percent — are filled through networks. […] That is the reality of building relationships over time.
“Often, you can get so stuck in your own world, it can be quite limiting in terms of seeing ways through the different challenges that you’re facing. Peers can understand your world, give you some objectivity,” says Dr Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist, founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and author of Time Wise. She has worked with the likes of Google, Apple, Disney and Lego, and her podcast How I Work has over 3.5 million downloads.
Indeed, connecting with peers ensures relationships that evolve as you do throughout your career — you never know where a fellow intern might end up working.
“I learned the importance of the relationships that you make, and tried to befriend and learn from as many people as I could. We tend to rise up the ranks in groups […] so there is a real community spirit,” Kenya Hunt, editor-in-chief of Elle UK, shared in an interview with BoF about her career advice in 2020.
While peers within your industry are an essential pillar to your network, retaining a group that reflects your own mindset and experience will limit the perspectives, support and opportunities to which you are exposed.
“Building those networks for people that aren’t just in your discipline is important, because as you progress, you might, for example, go freelance. Having a network of freelancers who aren’t necessarily in your discipline can become really powerful in terms of swapping client leads,” says Jamieson.
“Professions aren’t so siloed anymore,” she adds. “We’re all collaborating with each other on different executions of what we’re doing,” citing the growing presence of technology in fashion and textile production, and the need to borrow from expertise outside of fashion’s traditional skill sets to better understand the world of 3D design, augmented reality or Web3.
Diversifying your network also entails including more senior employees, or mentors. Approaching more established professionals can present a newly intimidating challenge, but bear in mind, if they are present in networking spaces, they are indirectly expressing an openness to mentorship. For senior executives, networks including younger generations are equally critical — also known as reverse mentorship.
It’s just as important to have people within your network that have nothing to do with your industry, that will come in with a completely different perspective.
“We always look at these things in a top down situation and we often need to [consider] them as well from the bottom up,” says Peters. “We need to invite younger people, people from different backgrounds, into the room, not to just sit on the sidelines and listen, but to actually participate, because that’s where we start to build future leaders. There’s this transference of knowledge and insight that potentially helps me, as a senior leader, to understand a different way of approaching or tackling something. That person […] might have their finger on the pulse in a different way.”
Diversifying your network should also include expanding outside of your industry entirely. “It’s just as important to have people within your network that have nothing to do with your industry, that will come in with a completely different perspective. I think that’s so important for driving creativity and innovation, [to gain] different solutions to problems,” says Dr Imber.
An office or workplace offers one of the most organic ways to build out a network. But with flexible and remote working increasingly commonplace, it is worth setting aside time each week to directly connect with colleagues.
“Pay attention to who you feel like you naturally spark with in meetings, who’s doing interesting work in your organisation that you want to get to know better and deliberately seek that out rather than just leaving it to chance,” says Dr Imber. “Now, we have to be more conscious about seeking those people out and paying attention to those interactions when we are in the virtual environment.”
This advice is the same for executives through to interns, whose short stints in an office are often less about output and more about connections made for career benefits.
“Look at each job or internship as building on another — it’s accumulative experience,” says Hunt. “You never want to burn a bridge when, ultimately, it’s a community of people you’re going to be working around for a really long time. Even if they’re not necessarily in the walls of your office, you’ll see them at shows or on trips.”
Employee resource groups also offer a community and support system from within the office space, and allow you to connect with colleagues from different departments, seniority levels or geographies. And the network does not need to reflect your own identity to be beneficial, says Peters. “Just because it’s the women’s network or Black employee network doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t join, because it helps to expand our mindset and broaden our network.”
Sometimes, the most effective way to maintain and develop tight-knit relationships is through proactively creating your own community outside of the workspace.
Doing your homework [is] a great way of bridging the gap and creating a soft intro, as opposed to going in and being the most confident, exuberant person in the room.
“A sense of community helped me navigate publishing, especially when, a lot of the time, my closest friends and I were the only person of colour on our team. So, we fostered another network outside of our respective magazines — and what makes me most hopeful today is seeing how many people are forming their own groups and coalitions,” says Hunt, who went on to set up R.O.O.M. Mentoring, a grassroots mentoring initiative dedicated to creating space within the British fashion industry for Black, Brown and marginalised voices.
For freelancers who might not have access to an office, depending on personal budgets, they can consider co-working spaces or popular creative hubs and workplaces. There are also the usual social media and networking sites, such as LinkedIn or The Dots, and an abundance of virtual networking events that arose as lockdowns took hold.
But as the world opens up again, as are in-person events, like international pop-ups hosted by Lean In or more localised ones like The Trouble Club in the UK.
“I’m a big proponent of The Dots never replacing the real world experience of going to events and meeting professionals that way,” says Jamieson. “I would start getting out to events, meeting people.”
While making a new connection at work or an event is a great start, the effort needs to be made to sustain the relationship for it to provide any positive benefit to you and your career — which can begin by simply following or connecting with that person online.
“Digital solutions have made it really easy to continue the conversation. I think DMs are where the magic lies in digital now as well — don’t be scared to follow up after events. […] If you see someone posting something and they need support or looking for a collaborator or a recommendation, help them — then you are top of mind,” says Jamieson.
“Suggest to somebody that you’d like to connect on LinkedIn and [if you can,] get them to add themselves there and then. You might not find the person at a later date,” adds Peters.
The sustained interaction will be more likely to develop with authenticity and positivity when beneficial to both parties, rather than purely self-serving.
Dr Imber recommends a more strategic approach for those with more established networks — set aside time each week to reach out to three people. Touch base and say hello, share some insight, a recommended connection or an article that might be of interest. “Networking doesn’t have to involve meeting new people,” she says.
“If it is Instagram where you’re trying to connect with someone, what can you do to help that person? Can you reshare images or videos from their portfolio to help spread their work wider into the world before you ask them for something? Always think, ‘what can I do for the other person?’ As opposed to, ‘what can they do for me?’”
When you reach out to someone in your network to develop a deeper relationship with them, consider the most appropriate medium and method of interaction.
“Communication channels [are] probably going to be the biggest differentiator between someone that is 20 versus someone that is 60,” says Dr Imber. “Where are they going to be most comfortable communicating? That might be a DM on Instagram, [or] a phone call to their office.”
Having that specific ask, and keeping it short and succinct, is useful.
Peters believes, by adding a level of professionalism, you increase your chances of having that message read. Prioritise an email over Instagram, he says, to avoid getting stuck in busy social inboxes, and follow up if you don’t hear back. “Be persistent but not the person that is annoying and goes across the board.”
It helps to personalise reach outs too, with generic copy and paste messages far less likely to receive a response, and reach out with a purpose.
“Having that specific ask, and keeping it short and succinct, is useful,” says Dr Imber. “And if there’s something interesting you have got to attach to the conversation, do that. Give them something that remembers you. That’s not to say add a 25-page portfolio but provide something that gives a level of understanding about who you are and why you want to connect.”
Networking can be especially intimidating when you are more of an introverted personality, and find the process of meeting new people challenging. But you can still benefit from physical events, even if you struggle to speak up.
“Just observing and looking at the way people move, interact with each other — that for me has been a great part of understanding how to hold myself in a room,” says Peters. “And bring a pal with you, so if you are going to feel intimidated in that space, you have somebody who is a support for you. Use them for the ability to start a conversation amongst yourselves and bring somebody else in.”
Peters also recommends the power of prior research, when you have access to an event page ahead of it happening. Looking at attendees’ profiles on social media can give you talking points, and allow you to pinpoint individuals with whom you know you have common interests.
“Doing your homework [is] a great way of bridging the gap and creating a soft intro, as opposed to going in and being the most confident, exuberant person in the room. Don’t try to be the loudest person in the room — I think that can often put people off.”
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