Asking Questions and Curating a Community
When Dr. Sophia Glenn realized her family wouldn’t be able to afford to send her to college, she joined the Army ROTC program. More than two dozen years, a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and a Ph.D. later, she now works as an agricultural economist for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation.
Sophia never had a roadmap for the way her life would evolve.
“Nothing I planned came to fruition, except for success,” she says. “I didn’t get to where I am by myself.”
She began networking differently on her first job after finishing her master’s degree. Networking helped her land her first job--teaching farmers in Florida. At the time, Sophia had no farming expertise and she looked like she was about 16. She was working with farmers in their 60s who asked, “What are you going to tell me about farming?”
Once she got over their disrespect, she rolled up her sleeves and began doing farm work, slinging hay and building fences. Her supervisor wanted her to focus on other areas, but Sophia saw a need and went with her gut. After learning about the farmers’ needs, she helped them develop a cooperative so they could market their goods together, apply for a grant and become the first farm cooperative to land a national school lunch contract. Now this cooperative has farm school-to-lunch programs all over the southeast and about 25 employees. And it all started by asking questions and curating a community.
After telling us this story, Sophia led the group through some guided icebreaker questions:
· Give a truthful compliment (“I love that shirt. Where did you get it?”)
· Lend a helping hand (“Can I hold your coffee while you get settled?”)
· Learn about what brought you here (“Have you been to this event before?”)
When you network, the connections you make can turn into other connections. Take Sophia’s connection with Dolores, for example. Dolores met Sophia by offering to hold her bag while she got settled at a conference. After hitting it off, they made plans to meet the next time Sophia traveled to Dolores’ hometown. Sophia followed through on her next trip, and while getting to know each other, she discovered that Dolores had a brilliant idea to help present financial data with a graphical mapping tool. “Holy smokes, Dolores!” Sophia said. “I didn’t even think about that!”
That’s when Sophia’s internal networking came in. She had this big idea, and she didn’t know what to do with it. So she made cold calls in her organization and pitched her idea. Through continued networking, Sophia talked to several people and had to refocus her conversations and forge new connections after a reorganization. She also encountered a vocal naysayer, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept trying to figure out how to make the project happen. Eventually she conquered the system by explaining the benefits of the project, persuading people of the value, and making a presentation. The idea went wild.
A professor once told Sophia, “If you make one good connection at a meeting, you’ve done well.” Every time you make a connection, you build community.
WCL Executive Director Sue Parham pointed out that women are often too busy to network internally. Men network by figuring out the organization’s underlying structure and systems. Sue then summed up Sophia’s seven-part process to networking:
1. Get your hands dirty (she went into the field, lifted bales of hay)
2. Build trust (have to get your hands dirty to build trust)
3. Offer help and go with your gut (wasn’t wasting their time)
4. Take it to the next level (Sophia even followed up in another city!)
5. Take the questions deeper
6. Get to the “aha” lightbulb by going deep (“Holy smokes, Dolores!”)
7. Create underground connections within your company—get to know people so you can understand how to get the job done
What can you do?
Network before you make a pitch to find out who’s on your side.
Your connections will then become a part of the presentation and part of the solution. The data shows that if we surprise people who already know their stuff (particularly men), they tend to close down.
Curate your community and conquer the system, and you will grow in ways you never thought possible.
Marvel at all the successes you’ve had and all that are to come. Don’t put any limits on yourself.