Just over a year ago, I was introduced to a new colleague. We worked together on a project via long-distance for several months, and then I traveled to her location to deliver the final product (a custom-designed workshop on non-traditional careers for scientists). The project turned out very well – so well, in fact, that they asked me to do it again this year.
During all this time, my new colleague signed her emails to me “Elizabeth”, and when I visited her institution that’s what most of the people called her. But this year, as I again traveled there to present the workshops, I noticed she had started signing her emails “Liz”.
I didn’t think much about it until we were having dinner together on the last night of the trip, talking about how the sessions went and planning improvements for the next year’s program. As we ate and watched the sunset, she asked if I had noticed the change, and made a very revealing comment.
“You have to earn the ‘Liz’”, she said. To new people she introduces herself as Elizabeth, and it’s only after they’ve proven themselves to be reliable, professional, and friendly that she relaxes and allows them to call her “Liz”. I was honored to learn that I had earned the right to call her “Liz.”
The more I thought about her comment, the more insightful I thought it was. While most of us aren’t this obvious about it, don’t we all do the same thing? When you first meet someone, you hold them at arm’s length, being friendly and cooperative, but also watching to see what they are going to be like. Over time, as you both figure out how to work together, you slowly let down your guard and forge a stronger connection.
It is those strong connections – people with whom you share a history, know about their strengths, weaknesses, expertise and needs – that form your professional network. These are the people for whom you should be looking for ways to help, and also the people to whom you can turn when you need help.
Networking is the new employment trend, and everyone is talking about how important it is to build your professional network. But it’s not just a matter of collecting as many business cards as you can (she who has the most Facebook friends does not necessarily win), but about building real relationships with other professionals.
By working with others on projects, proving your expertise, being reliable and professional, you will build your reputation in their estimation. They will gain a good understanding of what you can do, what you enjoy doing, and what you are like to work with. Hopefully, as they come across opportunities or ideas that they think will be of interest to you, they will pass them along to you. Obviously, you will do the same for them.
In that way, you now have an extra set of eyes looking out for you, and possibly looking in places you would never look. They extend your reach, you extend their reach, and everyone benefits – all because you took the time to get to know each other.
So the next time you meet someone new, or even get in touch with someone from your past, take a few minutes to think about the relationship. Is this one that is strong, and someone who would do you a favor if you asked? Or do you need to invest some more time in nurturing that relationship? Is it time to go out for coffee, or send an email to catch up on what’s going on in their life?
After all, if the only time you ever contact someone is when you want something from them, you will never “earn the Liz”.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.