Stop Networking, Start Connecting

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

The pandemic forced many people inside for many months. It has constrained our circle of immediate context. It has layered everyday interactions with a sense of unease, social distancing and masks make small talk harder. Increasingly as more people head back out into the world and back into their workplaces, it’s a great time to think about reconnecting with people and connecting to new ones.

We’re not talking about networking here or forcing more water cooler talk, but building real meaningful connections with the people we work and interact with, something we’ve been missing lately, whether they be employees, peers, or clients.

Today’s guest is an expert at building human connection. Susan McPherson runs her own communications consultancy, and she wrote the book, The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships. Susan, so great to talk with you.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Curt, it is a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

CURT NICKISCH: Why is this such an important, but maybe also difficult time to do this kind of connecting?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Oh, that’s a very, very good question. And I have to tell you that when I put forth my book proposal, it was four years ago, long before the pandemic was even a glimmer in our eye. And I think like you said in the introduction, people are feeling isolated. Even in the United States where we are now starting to kind of come back to life and come back to some semblance of normalcy, after 15 months of being isolated, people are feeling like they are rusty in terms of communicating with others.

CURT NICKISCH: Have you felt that yourself?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Absolutely to a certain extent, but I have over the last 15 months for my own sanity, literally every single day would reach out to three to five people in whatever mode was the simplest at the time, just to either connect or reconnect, to deal with my own loneliness. So it was my kind of SOS to the world like don’t forget me.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What have you heard from other people? How have they been affected by this?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: It’s interesting. About 50/50 – some are so excited to be back both personally and professionally, and others are terrified and won’t even go to an event with 10 people. So it’s very difficult to get a true sense, at least at this juncture.

CURT NICKISCH: How has the Zoom and Slack life we’ve been living for a year and a half changed things because it’s hurt some things and I imagine it’s also helped in a lot of ways?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Sure. Well, let me first just start by saying the challenge of course we have had with all of these Zoom platforms, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams is we lose the serendipity. But I also think in some ways it has democratized the meetings that we all have been in. First of all, I think we have gotten very good at being intentional, especially with the chat function down the side of all of these platforms. Remember when we used to be in meeting room after meeting room, you couldn’t have side conversations with people during a meeting because it would be, first of all, disrespectful to whoever was hosting the meeting and you’d probably get in trouble.

But what I have found, and I’ve of course done multitudes of book talks, but also running my company, that chat capability allows you to reach out to people and really, truly ask them how they’re doing, ask them if you can maybe have a discussion the next day or the next week.

I think also just this past year, it has allowed people that potentially in group settings might feel less or more inhibited to speak up. It has given people an option to find a different way to speak up. So in some ways, as it has ruined that serendipity, I think it’s offered a lot of other opportunities that pre pandemic we didn’t even know existed.

I also think this notion of, of being able to hold meetings across borders without having to get on planes, to fly to Abu Dhabi from New York for two meetings and then fly back. I think there’s something good about that. So, as we look ahead, clearly everything shows we are going to be in some sort of hybrid situation. So I don’t think these meetings are going away. It’s going to be a situation where how do we balance both?

CURT NICKISCH: Do you think people are ready to network yet? Or is it really just about kind of getting back to where they were in terms of relationships and work relationships with others?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: I think a good percentage of the population who are extroverted and boisterous are going to look at this as riding a bike. You take your bike after it’s been in storage for a year, you get on it. For the first few blocks you feel like you’re going to get in an accident and fall over, but then by the fourth block you’ve got it. But I do believe there are going to be just as many if not more people that are going to instead look to do smaller connecting, smaller gatherings. And in the book, I talk a bit about the difference or the delineation between networking and connecting.

CURT NICKISCH: I wanted to ask about that because I mean, this disruption does give everybody a chance to sort of reevaluate how they have been doing things and do things differently going forward. And this is a case where you think people can approach that that old school networking concept differently.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Yes. Well, if you look up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the actual definition of networking, it is not the most pleasant thing. And it is very transactional and it is work, which for many people could be foreboding. For introverts, it is certainly terrifying. And I think when you are connecting one-on-one or one-on-two in a deeper, more meaningful way, it is more feasible if you’re shy or introverted. It is long-term going to lead to many more benefits than walking a room, collecting business cards, and then coming home and looking at the cards and wondering who are these people. Or connecting with people on LinkedIn, which I think of as very much networking. And then within five minutes, receiving an ask to buy something from the person. I look at that as much more on the networking realm of things. Connecting means it is a relationship that you build that it’s built with reciprocity. It is built from leading with how you can be helpful to one another over time, good times and bad.

CURT NICKISCH: This might seem kind of unnatural to people at least when they’re out of practice, when you’re talking about human connection. You have a framework to do this. Can you take us through that?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: I think it’s really important for certainly younger people coming out of college, mid-level business professionals, connecting matters, connecting leads to impact and happenings. And I have to say that anything good that’s ever happened to me professionally happened because of connections that I made.

So in writing the book, I did some very deep reflection of my own to find out how have I been able to do this all these years? And it came down to the gather, ask, do method of building relationships. And first and foremost, during the gather phase, you do a bit of self-reflection on yourself, define your own business values and goals, and frankly determine how and who you can help.

In the ask phase you learn to truly offer to help others by asking them the meaningful questions so you understand what are their hopes and dreams and desires and challenges. And if you listen carefully while they are giving you all that data, you can move to the do phase, which I consider the most important phase when you actually have the follow-through or you take action and have follow-through. And that is where you can build confidence, trust, and a depth of connections by actually doing the things that you’ve said you were going to do.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s start with that first step, gather, and let’s apply it to somebody you know. How do you do that when it feels that some of your work friendships and work relationships have maybe fallen away or you’re just a little rusty to reaching out to your colleagues?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Sure. Well, I believe we’re in, as we all know, a very freaky time for lack of better terms. And I believe we have an opportunity for a reset and a do-over right now. And in my 56 years of living on this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever really had a do over opportunity. And from a professional standpoint, this is tremendous.

So if we dive first into the gather phase, if I was to suggest this to a colleague or a business partner of mine, the first part of the gather phase would be to do some deep self-reflection. What are your business goals over the next four years, four months, four weeks even? Who do you want to connect with or reconnect with that is going to help you meet those goals? Then how are you going to do everything you can to break out of the bubble of only connecting with people who look like you, sound like you, the same age as you, the same cultural and racial heritage as you? And lastly, what are the superpowers? What are your secret sauces? What are your business skills that you can offer up? That is a deeper look at what happens during the gather phase.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s a helpful forcing function to make sure that you are focusing your efforts really on your goals because a lot of us still are pretty limited in our capacity to do this, right?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Yes. Yes. Well, the underlying current of the entire book is leading with how can I help? And if you don’t do this first kind of self-reflection, it’ll be very difficult for you to understand how you can be helpful. So that is why I put so much emphasis on this notion of learning what your capabilities are and being able to articulate them, which quite frankly can be very, very challenging for many of us, including me.

CURT NICKISCH: A lot of times you look back on your career and realize that people didn’t necessarily think were going to be influential in your career and decisions you made, end up being really pivotal later. When you are being strategic about what you’re looking for and how to move forward, how do you actually know who’s part of that circle of people that you really want to focus on reconnecting with?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Well, that’s a great question and sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. I often say it’s the detours, not the destinations. And leading with curiosity can open so many doors that could be valuable to you as well as you could be valuable to the other people.

CURT NICKISCH: Offering help is really intriguing because I know many people who agonize over networking because it feels like you’re asking someone to help you out of the blue. How does offering help break the cycle?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Sure. Well, it’s a bit of… It’s humanity. It’s kindness. It’s leading compassion. You will always find that one or two people that find your request to offer of help dubious or perhaps could have a alternative agenda. And we can’t waste time on people that feel that way because there’s millions of others who, like all of us, can use help, can use a connection, can use an introduction. So I have found it opens up a conversation in a more meaningful way. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t take the oxygen mask first, that leading with how we can be helpful to others, actually the help then comes back to help ourselves. I’ve witnessed that for years.

I do want to stress Curt that the most important thing here is when you connect with people or when you reconnect with people, it’s much more about asking them what their hopes and dreams are or what their challenges are, rather than going immediately to the weather comment or what they had for lunch that day.

And this can be both personally, and of course professionally, whether you’re in an office setting or you’re at an event or a conference. And what I have found is when you ask these questions, then you get the data that you need to be helpful, to be responsive, which would then take you to the “do” phase.

CURT NICKISCH: Gotcha. So when you actually offer help or do something, it’s welcome and deserved and needed.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Right. But this is also, it’s something to think about. This is not like a one and done. I mean, again, this is the delineation between networking, shaking hands, passing a business cards, and then maybe following up a year later. This is about literally having a deeper conversation where somebody lets you know that perhaps she wants to be serving on a private board, or she wants to get involved in angel investing, or she wants to support a nonprofit, or she wants a new job, or she wants a promotion. And you’re able to then take that data and maybe not the next day or the next month, but you’re actually able to take that information and be responsive to it or connect that person with another person who may be helpful. This isn’t always about you having to do all the helping.

CURT NICKISCH: How do you do that in a way that doesn’t come off wrong like you are maybe smarter, more connected, or in a better position than someone else? What’s the right kind of help to offer? How do you do that in a welcome way?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: I would have to say the most important thing is to listen carefully. One thing I learned quite a bit of during the research for the book is how woefully bad we are at listening. So even if we ask people these questions, oftentimes when they respond, we’ll start either tuning out or do what’s called anticipatory listening, where we’re immediately ready to come back with our canned or whatever phrase as opposed to truly, truly listening.

So one thing I find to be incredibly helpful when I force myself to be a better listener and not do anticipatory listening and take notes is following up as soon as I can so that it doesn’t get waylaid to the next week or the next month. And repeating or even regurgitating, if I can go so far as use that word, what I heard the person say, because to me, there is no greater gift we can give one another than reminding them that we saw and heard them. And then once we do that, then actually going to the do phase and making the introduction or making the connection or providing some guidance and doing so in a genuine way.

And I realize there are plenty of people also that don’t need help and we don’t need to help them. But also I want to just stress, this is a reciprocal. It’s not just about you helping the other person. I mean, I’m not looking at this as a charity. I’m looking at this as building long-term, meaningful connections over our career.

CURT NICKISCH: That final step there, the follow-through that you talked about, that maybe seems intuitive when you say it, but do a lot of people forget this?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Absolutely. And for the very reason, I think I just mentioned, we say we’ll get to it later. We put it on the back burner and we say it’s not that important. And one of the things during this pandemic that I think at least for me and for many people I know has been helpful is when we’ve been on walks and we have our mobile devices and something pops in our brain, we have the ability to act upon it then. 30 years ago when I was coming of age professionally, you couldn’t act upon something right away. You couldn’t make that connection or make that introduction right away. So I’m a big believer when something pops into your brain, don’t put it off if you can. I mean, if you’re driving, don’t do it. But if you’re walking or you’re sitting in your room or you’re again, walking your puppy… It’s like we tend to say, “Oh, I’ll get to it.”

CURT NICKISCH: And then that person reaches out and you’re like, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to send you something. I’ve been meaning to tell you something.” Whenever you say that, it’s a sign that you didn’t act on it when you thought about it.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Well, and it’s interesting. People say to me, “Susan, there’s only 24 hours in the day, you run a company. How are you always helpful?” And number one, I’m not always helpful. Number two, I’m very intentional when I can’t help someone. And what I do is I actually put it in my calendar for the next month so that it’s like says, “August 7th, get back to Whitney.” That she had made this ask and you weren’t able to help her. I mean, I don’t go to that explicit to write it in my calendar, but that way I can circle back at a time maybe when I have a bit more bandwidth and I have found that to be just a very logical way for me to process. This may not sound very sexy, but I always am carrying a notebook with me so I can jot notes down, which may sound incredibly archaic to your audience, but it is useful for me.

And I also find that as over the years, I’ve built meaningful connections, it means I don’t have to do all the helping. I can reach out to others to tap them so that they can be helpful.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Can you take me through a mini case study of this? If I’m going back to the office, I’m reconnecting with somebody at work, just take me through the steps and kind of how that conversation goes.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Well, I’m a big believer in reaching out to people that perhaps you’ve never met at a company. There’s nothing more important to your own growth at a company than learning cross functional. I mean, there’s lots of things that are going to help you obviously succeed at your business, whether it’s a massive enterprise or a startup, but if you can learn about others’ roles in the companies that you’re not doing, it helps you be a better employee, whatever function you may have. So as we are going back and you can do this virtually, or you can do it obviously in person, but my suggestion is when you reach out to a colleague that you’ve never met, instead of asking for that person’s time so that you can pick that person’s brain, what about instead saying, “Hi, Larry or Linda or Mike? I’d love to get 10 minutes of your time so I can learn more about your role so I can be supportive to you.”

CURT NICKISCH: And then you’re building a relationship that will end up being helpful later when you do need that person’s help or perspective.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: I mean, I joke that I was a waitress throughout college and one of the things I learned very early on to be a successful waitress, you need to understand what the life of a chef and a cook is. And if you actually take the time to understand what it’s like for them inside the kitchen, you inevitably are going to be much more successful as a wait person. I realize that is a funny example, but it taught me very early on to have this inherent curiosity wherever I worked.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And is this reaching out any different now after the pandemic than before?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Well, I think again, I think people are feeling rusty, and what I am going so far to suggest is when you lead with this notion of being helpful, it is more human. And quite frankly, after the last 15 months, this is the first time on this planet other than experiencing climate change in various places that we collectively globally have experienced something together. And that shared vulnerability should in some ways free us up to be a little bit more comfortable reaching out because we’ve all shared this God awful experience.

Obviously, some people far worse, but it’s still it is that shared vulnerability that never before, at least in my lifetime and I would assume yours as well.

CURT NICKISCH: Is this more important for C-suite leaders, middle managers, people just starting out in their career to think about?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: I would go so far to say it’s important for all of us, whether you’re just graduating college or approaching retirement. For the C-suite listeners, I think it’s vitally important that they don’t relegate building meaningful connections to the annual sales conference or the monthly happy hours. Because studies show that when employees are more deeply connected, their productivity goes up, they are much more likely to stay at the company longer, and they are much more likely to share with the people that they know how great it is to work there. So to me, if you are a leader of a company, make time for this at the beginning of every meeting. Get away from the weather talk. But also, you can’t expect people to “bring their full selves to work” if you’re not going to do that yourself and create safe spaces, because we know many people don’t feel safe and for good reason.

CURT NICKISCH: And then any specific thoughts for middle managers or people just starting out?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: I think open every meeting with a question that is going to help facilitate more meaningful conversations. I run a company that has 13 employees. We’re very tiny, but throughout this past year, every Monday at our weekly meeting, we always have an icebreaker at the beginning so that we don’t delve into what’s the weather in Cleveland conversation. And sometimes it could be, if you could pick anywhere in the world to go post pandemic, where would it be? Or if there was one problem you could solve and the money question wasn’t even part of the equation, what would that be? And what that does is it helps employees get a better sense of who they’re working with.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Now, say you’re going back to work hybrid, part-time in the office, part-time at home. You’re trying to make more time for family and friends this year after a year of not having a lot of it. You’re also trying to reconnect with people at work. Your time is limited. Where should you start? How do you know it’s working?

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Well, I would first again, go back to the gather phase and determine what are you hoping to accomplish in the next year? What are your goals? So that you can at least provide some sort of framework so you don’t go absolutely crazy. And I would try to help guide yourself through that lens and then do so in some sort of a careful way.

Obviously, we’ve for years have had to balance our professional and personal lives. So I don’t think that it is that much different now. I do think people feel a sense of urgency to reconnect with loved ones, of course, as they should. I also am reading and the data is out there that people just haven’t taken vacations. It would be a good time if you’ve not taken your time off to do so now and use that time not only to reconnect with people who are important in your lives, but also do some self-reflection of what you want to accomplish over the next year because I do believe we are living in this reset opportunity.

And also think about what can you offer? What are your skills that you can bring to the table, both to the people that you work with as well as the people perhaps you serve if you’re involved in non-profit work, et cetera.

CURT NICKISCH:  Susan, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about this.

SUSAN MCPHERSON: Curt, it is a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Susan McPherson, she’s a communication consultant and the author of the book, The Lost Art of Connecting. She also wrote the HBR article, How Much of Your Authentic Self Should You Really Bring to Work? It’s at

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.