Networking Is More Than Passing Out Business Cards (Trust Her — She Wrote the Book on It!)

January 15, 2014


Pam LairdJanuary is National Mentoring Month, and it presents a good time to step back and think about what mentoring and networking mean. We were lucky enough to attend a panel discussion on the topic a couple of months ago hosted by the George Washington University and the National Women’s History Museum. The program featured Pamela Laird, our very own 2001–02 American Fellow and author of Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin, which won the 2006 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history. We caught up with Laird last week to learn more about her experience with and views on social capital, networking, and mentoring.

Q: Do you see your peers taking advantage of mentoring?

A: One of the things that has changed over time is that it has become acceptable for women to accept the help of any kind of mentoring relationship. There was a time when that was not the case for many of us, and that includes me and one of my colleagues in my department.

My colleague’s thesis adviser at Yale was one of the country’s leading historians at the time. He offered to help her work on her dissertation to get it published. She was so reticent — she thought, “Oh no, I can’t take up the great man’s time.” And it was only after she read my book, decades later, that she said, “Oh, he was trying to help me!” He was trying to help and she just didn’t feel like she should take up his time. I think now women are less reluctant to do that. [Mentoring] has always happened since the beginning of time, and it’s only in the last few decades that women and other people who were traditionally outsiders have come to recognize that this is a perfectly legitimate, valued part of the professional process.

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Q: You talk about women and mentoring in your book. How has the relationship between the two evolved into the professional development essential that it is today?

A: What has evolved is the language — the social capital lexicon. Having those words available helps us understand what’s going on and think how we can use and build [networking] tools.

One of the things we’ve done over the last 40 years is to make it more comfortable to have collegial relationships that are friendly, personal (in the sense that we’re comfortable with each other), but professional. Nobody questions that they’re professional relationships. Part of what has made this possible is the growing awareness of the fact that women can be respected, respectable professionals. That when a man or woman contacts another person nobody thinks of it in terms of worrying about any kind of inappropriate activity. Of course, although professional interactions between men and women have become normalized, both women and men have to ensure that their own behaviors are professional and to be alert to risks if others’ behaviors are not.

"Pull" book cover

Pamela Laird’s book, “Pull,” looks at the history of mentoring and business opportunity.

Q: Sometimes young professionals are unsure how to go about finding a mentor, or finding another later in their career as their needs change. What advice do you have for people in search of a mentor at any point in their career?

A: Get involved in community groups, a Rotary Club, or a Chamber of Commerce. That’s where the connections are. The support and the guidance and the nurturing come within networks of people like oneself, but the opportunities are often elsewhere, in those larger community groups. Or volunteer at the art museum or local philanthropy. You never know. The nice thing about those activities and volunteering is that even if it doesn’t have a professional benefit, it’s doing the right thing. It’s doing work that matters and helps people and builds community. So it’s valuable in itself.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how we may find ourselves networking or entering a mentoring situation without fully realizing it?

A: One of the things I think is really important to do is to think about mentoring more broadly. Mentoring happens within networks and within relationships. Sometimes it’s a small network — two people. More typically it’s in a larger network that includes people at various levels of authority, people with various degrees of gatekeeping authority, and then an awful lot of people who are peers. So these relationships are not necessarily the traditional idea, of a person in authority who pulls someone into opportunities.

Q: Any parting words of wisdom?

A: Even though it’s acceptable now to overtly engage in social capital activities, it doesn’t work, can’t work, if it becomes mechanical. You can’t just go to an event and pass out business cards. It really has to be about building genuine relationships.

Pamela Laird is a professor and chair of the history department at University of Colorado, Denver. She is the author of Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin. This is an especially great book for anyone interested in learning more about the history of networking in the United States!

Pamela Laird’s 2001–02 American Fellowship was sponsored by the Adaline S. Gilstrap/Rocky Mountain Region Fellowship and the Kittie Grove/May Hall Fellowship.



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