Weeding out the competition: 8 ways to cultivate your professional garden

Posted by Hakyun Morrissey.
My backyard gets a lot of sun, so a few years ago I decided to plant a vegetable garden, with cherry tomatoes, bush beans, potatoes, corn, carrots and many different herbs. In the early summer, the kids and I would make sure it had enough water, sun and nutrients.
“Tend to your garden” Voltaire famously said—I’ve always taken his advice literally. I think of my garden as a microcosm of my outer world, and try to cultivate all areas of life with the same care and attention. Not least, my professional network.
Most professionals have at some point created a profile on one of the big networking sites like LinkedIn. When I first created an account, I was focused on acquiring a certain number of contacts.
“How many likes did you get?”
My competitive side came out, eager for new connections, more “likes” than everyone else. But the person I was competing against most fiercely was myself. One month I had 100 connections, and the next I had 200—a victory. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I knew it would take time to grow my brand.
The driving, underlying anxiety was that people were judging my merit by my metrics. While it’s true that quantity has a quality all its own, I quickly learned that professional networking sites are different than social networking sites. So I began to approach my network the same way I tended to my garden, cultivating a few high-quality connections rather than rampant growth. It’s the recommendations and the network you develop that carry all the weight. Five well-written recommendations from high-quality, trustworthy sources (people you’ve worked with in the past) are worth more than 500 connections, or 50 “likes” for an inspirational quote you’ve posted. You don’t need to blow your own horn or have a Kardashian-sized following. If you tend to your network, others will do that for you.
Social connections, professional or otherwise, require continual upkeep and maintenance in order to flourish. I’ve always stayed true to the motto of treating others the way you want to be treated. I love being treated genuinely and being heard.
It’s far more productive to log in with an open, welcoming attitude, a spirit of curiosity. Who can I help? The strangest thing is that people start to gravitate to you even more and help push your career forward. People generally want to help, and they especially enjoy helping others with whom they have a relationship.
Tending your network is easy and low-maintenance
A crucial turning point for me was deciding to turn off phone notifications (they were driving me crazy!). Networking apps are a tool you want to control, not let control you 24/7. Just one small deed per day will add up over time. The only tough part is getting into the habit of logging in once a week to review who you want to reach out to.
Give yourself a time, say 9 pm, when it’s still early enough to look at a screen without interrupting your sleep. There are several ways to maintain your professional garden. Each time you log in, make it your goal to do at least one of the following:
  • Add a new connection.
  • Like someone’s post, and/or add an encouraging comment.
  • Link to an interesting article you just read or an event you think might benefit someone.
  • Update one area of your personal profile or add an accomplishment.
  • Reach out to an old coworker or client and ask what they are up to.
  • Congratulate someone on a new position or work birthday.
“Promote or perish”
Reaching out to people, online or otherwise, comes more naturally to some people than others. Extraverts are energized by social interactions; shy types prefer to be spectators rather than participants. Some other obstacles you may face when starting your cultivation project:
  • Many people don’t like networking, either because they are shy or simply don’t like the idea of schmoozing or hustling. What’s wonderful about online networking is you can make good, solid connections without having to make awkward small talk with people at some networking event, waiting for the right moment to foist your business card upon them.
  • Many of us have privacy concerns—we don’t want to leave a big digital footprint, for all the world to judge and data-hungry corporations to utilize. Be sure to check the Privacy settings on your profile.
  • Another big obstacle you might need to overcome is thinking of professional networking sites as a job searching tool, and only using them when you’re actively looking for work.
Even tenured professors are increasingly feeling the pressure to market themselves. Recently, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey J. Williams bemoaned “The Rise of the Promotional Intellectual,” arguing that professors are urged to get their brand out there and tap their inner marketers to figure out ways to promote their programs. This “promotional fever” has affected the way we understand and conduct our work and careers. The adage, Williams writes, seems to be morphing from “publish or perish” to “promote or perish.”1 But you don’t need to be a tireless, calculating self-promoter to build your personal brand. As we’ve seen, you only need a few minutes per day tending to your professional networking garden.
    Cultivate a rich variety of connections
    Sometimes a friend will confess they’ve “pruned” their Facebook network—and I understand the importance of being selective, but the same rule doesn’t exactly apply to professional networks: Who knows what serendipitous opportunity they might someday make available to you? No act of online kindness goes unnoticed. You never know how much a single recommendation or even a like will mean to someone, and you’ll be planting seeds of gratitude that might eventually bloom into something beneficial.
    Don’t make the mistake of passing up a connection just because you can’t imagine how they could ever possibly help you in your line of work. Who knows how valuable that person might one day turn out to be? Perhaps one day you’ll set up your own consulting practice, and all that cultivating and daily watering will pay off. A coworker of mine posted that she wanted to semi-retire in New Hampshire, and it was her carefully nurtured network that responded and found her a job there. That’s how the best roles get landed in 2018.
    When you see someone’s profile and they have 30 glowing recommendations, your first thought might be: What an impressive profile—they must be good at self-promotion. When in reality, they are good promoters of other people, nurturers of talent and experts at tending their gardens.
    1 “The Rise of the Promotional Intellectual,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 2018
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    October 2, 2018