It can feel awkward to reach out to the “weak ties” in your network when exploring a new career direction. But that could be how you’re going to find your next job.
“I don’t know anyone,” the young woman in my office said forlornly.
She was a participant in my monthly class on career and job transition. I was wrapping up the evening and asked the lovely people in my office what was worrying them.
“I want to move into sustainable food production and operations, but I don’t know a single person in that world,” she said. She looked tired. Depleted. She was working long hours on an opposite shift from her husband, with a toddler at home.
“It just takes one person to start building a useful network,” I said, trying to be reassuring. I felt the weight of making a significant career change while already stretched thin. “You just need one lucky introduction.”
“Have you heard of the Bread Lab?” one of the other class participants asked her. “It’s a really interesting organization in the Skagit Valley.”
“Do you know anyone there?” I asked him, shamelessly.
“Well, yes, my wife is friends with someone there,” he said, fiddling with his phone. Moments later, he told the young woman: “My wife will email you tomorrow with an introduction to her friend.”
We all smiled. She now had the beginning of a network.
“Well, my brother works in food sustainability,” said another class participant. “Here’s his LinkedIn profile. If you’re interested, I can introduce you.”
“Yes, please!” said the young woman. She now had two contacts in this fledgling network. She looked a little less tired.
“I have a former colleague who left our agency to work in sustainable food,” said a third class participant, as we all laughed. She promised to send an email the next day introducing the two.
There was something magical about that moment. People helping each other. Older people giving a younger person a hand. Networking can seem like an overwhelming, potentially awkward and humiliating chore, but in that moment it felt generous and kind and interesting.
We can characterize these class participants gathered in my office for an evening as “weak ties.” Adam Grant’s 2013 best-seller, “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success” describes a classic sociology study testing the common assumption that we get the most help from our strong ties – our close friends and colleagues.
The study found that nearly 17 percent of people surveyed in professional, technical and managerial professions who had recently changed jobs heard about their new job from a strong tie.
“But surprisingly, people were significantly more likely to benefit from weak ties,” Grant writes. “Almost 28 percent heard about the job from a weak tie.”
“Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties serve as bridges: they provide more efficient access to new information,” according to Grant. “Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.”
Those bridges were shining full of promise for that young woman as we wrapped up class.