From X TO Z: Networking Across the Generational Gap In conversations with my college-aged daughter, I've gained better insight into the value of professional networking and reevaluated strategic and personal approaches to get the most from this priceless asset.
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My eldest daughter, one of beloved twin girls, is completing her final semester at Providence College, and she is filled with equal parts excitement and dread. She and I find ourselves startled at how quickly time has passed of course, but also in the pleasant situation where our goals are similarly aligned for perhaps the first time. I have been offering the kind of advice a parent does – stay focused, tune-up the resume, hustle. I know that my guidance will be helpful (whether she wants it or not), but while she begins her professional career and I launch a new phase of mine, I'm struck by what we are learning from each other – particularly about networking in the 21st century.
When my girls and my two younger sons were in middle school, like many parents, I found myself irritated by the time and attention they gave to their screens. Gaming, Snapchatting, making videos for YouTube – it seemed like fun, but it sure didn't look the way my adolescence did. At the same time, I was growing my online network with colleagues and friends across the country and around the globe. It dawned on me that "face-to-face" wasn't as necessary for cultivating connections; making them mutually meaningful was what mattered. My children were successfully building friendships and shared experiences in their digital worlds, as real as any they also built in the backyard, and likewise, so was I.
For instance, the reason my company, Stellwagen Ventures, operates in the verticals it does today – music, sport, investment, media and entertainment – is because our network does too: my partner, Matthew Baxter and I have cultivated professional and personal experiences that have led to invaluable relationships across a multitude of industries. As an example, one of my first mentors, Adam Block, with whom I worked in the early 90s at Sony Music (before my daughters were even a proverbial twinkle in the eye), provided invaluable support and insight.
Maximizing a connection like Adam's made practical sense strategically but also afforded us the priceless advice and guidance we needed to launch with laser-like focus. After decades of building relationships, online and off, the value of our networks was by far our biggest asset, and in fact, led to the early deals that fueled our growth and forged our company's mission: creative collaboration to achieve mutually beneficial success.
Related: What Is Effective Networking?
In chatting with my daughter about her job search and reflecting on my own networking strategies, a few important ideas stood out about our approaches – and despite our generational gap, we both realized we have much to gain from each other's perspective. As you build or harness the power of your own connections, consider these "Gen X-meets-Gen Z" networking takeaways:
My daughter and her friends can spot a "fake" just as easily as the world's finest art dealers: they know when every photoshop and filter trick has been used to blur reality (and they rightfully decry the impact this has on growing minds and bodies). They prefer an authentic online presence and share with the same honest approach. Being "real" engenders trust and encourages meaningful interaction that is far more beneficial. Authenticity is key.
Related: Networking Doesn't Have to be Sleazy
I've had thirty years to strengthen my own cold-calling skills, so I understand it isn't easy. I've learned to look at it from the perspective of having nothing to lose: if the worst that can happen is a no response, then I am exactly where I started. On the flip side, some of the biggest wins of my career, from my own post-collegiate experiences as a music publicist to the early days with Stellwagen Ventures, have come from cold outreach to an acquaintance of a friend. Why wait for the phone to ring when you can pick it up yourself and make the call? Be bold.
Put the "work" in network
Swiping through posts with blinding fury is like swimming laps in board shorts -- it's counterintuitive to say the least. I remind my daughter to set aside an hour or so every single day to expand and learn from her network with the thoughtful commitment she's given to so many other aspects of her life, from school to sports. It's more than hitting the "like" button. Do research, construct precise introduction queries, and approach the overall task with the focus it requires. The first job you will ever have is getting one.
Make it a two-way street
Be valuable to those in your circle, stand out, and offer your advice and assistance whenever possible. With college tours and visits halted, for instance, my daughter and her friends are in the unique position to share invaluable insight to prospective students. As she utilizes her Alumni network to grow connections, she in turn is offering assistance to the Admissions department or to the younger siblings of her peers who are beginning their college search. As they stay connected online, my daughter and her peers have been able to help and receive help from friends across the country and world. Make time to be accessible and helpful.
My daughters can spend hours flipping through Tik Tok. Jumping down a rabbit hole isn't always a negative thing: if an industry or a thought leader or a particular business trend or idea strikes a chord of curiosity, embrace it! Ask questions of your network and expand on whatever it is that provokes an interest. When considering reaching out to learn more or pursue a question, follow your instincts to self-educate and do it! Always be open and curious.
Listen with intention
I tell my daughter not to worry about asking for an informational zoom meeting, phone call or F2F meeting for one specific reason: most people love to talk about what they do and how they do it. It's how we listen that matters. Before a conversation, do your research, establish your questions and goals and train your ears to listen for those nuggets that might unlock your next steps or reveal a problem that only you can solve. A networking session is made most successful not so much by what we say, but by what we mindfully hear others saying. Don't underestimate the power of being a good listener.
As graduation approaches, my daughter is tackling the next phase of her life with a dedication for which I am so proud. The process is both stressful and challenging, particularly in this current environment. The data shows that the next opportunity for her, and perhaps for all of us, will come from the networks we create, curate and nurture. She is on the cusp of creating hers, while I am realizing why I curated and nurtured mine over the last 20 or so years.
A father can teach something to his children, but only if he learns from his children as well: we are better when we combine our generational experiences – a little of Gen X and a little of Gen Z creates a solid new approach to networking. We are both proceeding with hopeful optimism, authenticity, hard work and genuine good will in the digital spaces she was raised in and those to which I have happily adapted.
We share one thing in common most of all: we both know the future is bright.