We all know networks are an important career asset. But it can be a challenge for working parents to make time for networking, since networks often seem to grow during after-hours activities — like after-work drinks, weekend off-sites, or far-away conferences. But there are ways that working parents can fit networking into their busy lives. First, remember that networking isn’t just about meeting new people; it’s about maintaining connections with people you already know, by staying in touch or making introductions. Use video conferencing to meet new people “face to face” if you can’t travel. And talk to the other parents you meet about non-kid stuff; research shows “multiplex” ties, where we have many things in common, tend to be stronger.
Networks matter for career success. They help you find people who can assist you with projects, refer you to new employers, and make connections to new and bigger opportunities. In a famous study by Ronald Burt, people who made efforts to improve their networks were 42%–74% more likely to be promoted than those who didn’t.
Here’s the challenge: networks often seem to grow during after-hours activities, like after-work drinks, weekend off-sites, or far-away conferences. And that poses a problem for most working parents. How do you meet new people if traveling to conferences is out of the question? How do you strengthen connections with colleagues after work if you also need to hurry home for soccer practice? For many working parents, those problems don’t get solved and their network growth ceases (and maybe even shrinks).
But being a working parent doesn’t mean the end of a thriving network, it just means you have to get a bit more creative and deliberate. I should know. As the father of two pre-school-aged children and the husband to an emergency room physician, relying on organic network growth from after-hours events just wasn’t feasible. I had to get intentional. I examined a variety of methods based on network research in my latest book. Here’s a few evidence-based techniques I’ve found that work for me, that may also help you:
Press pause on making new contacts. When your kids are small, finding time to make new contacts can be a challenge, but there’s a wealth of opportunity and new information that can come from old friends and former colleagues — in social networking jargon, your “weak” or “dormant” ties. And because you’re already connected, reestablishing the relationship and catching up should be faster than making new connections. Weak ties are often more valuable than new contacts anyway, the research suggests. Don’t overdo it, but find one dormant tie per week to reach back out to. Use their social media profiles for updates on their life you can use as a reason to connect, or take the 30 seconds to pass along a quick note when an article, video, or anything else brings that person up in your mind.
Explore the fringes of your network. After you’ve reconnected with lots of dormant ties, start exploring who is on the edges of your network by asking for introductions from those weak ties. Like old contacts, it’s a more time-efficient way to connect, since there’s an intermediary you both share. My favorite method was to ask multiple people “Who do you know in ___?” with the blank being the industry, company, geography, or whatever I wanted to get connected to. When the same name kept appearing on different people’s list, that was a strong signal it was time to connect.
Get virtual. When you do want to get to know someone, or reconnect with someone you do know, think beyond the coffee or lunch date. With video technology advancing fast, a high-fidelity face-to-face conversation can happen without either of you leaving the office, or your home.
Practice introductions. One of the most powerful things you can do to strengthen your network involves not meeting new people at all, but instead connecting two contacts in your network to each other. You strengthen the network around you, provide value for both contacts, and become known as an overall generous person. And you can do it any time of day via email (but make sure both parties know your introduction is coming).
Use business travel wisely. There may be times when traveling for work is unavoidable, but you can make the most of your time away. If you’re traveling to a conference, do some research ahead of time to find out who else is coming and schedule quick chats throughout the event — rather than hoping to meet some interesting people just milling around the coffee station. If you’re traveling for something else, see if you can arrive a few hours early or stay a little longer and use that extra time to reconnect with other contacts. My personal rule is that the number of overnights matter, but the number of hours in the day do not, so I try to arrive the earliest I can and leave as late as possible to sneak in a few more meetings.
Talk to your parent friends about more than just kid stuff. Research on social networks suggests that your most valuable connections come from people with whom you share multiple contexts (called your multiplex ties). So examining non-kid interests, hobbies, and even work can lead to a stronger bond and more reasons to stay connected. Likewise, doing family events with your colleagues can be a valuable way to invest time in multiple areas of your life. One of my favorite moments from a recent family vacation in Washington, DC was the time we spent walking the national zoo with a work colleague and his family. We became closer friends and more valuable colleagues.
If a lot of these steps seem like a regular part of networking, that’s because they are…we just tend to forget about them. There’s far more to growing a thriving network than attending networking events, working the room, and hoping you meet new people. Much of the work of networking involves taking care of the network you already have and slowly expanding it through current contacts. It’s tempting to think that can only happen at after-work events or at big gatherings, but the truth is much of it can be done from your office at work during hours you’re already working.
You don’t have to find more time to do networking, you just have to fit networking into the time you have.