Friends with (Professional) Benefits: Six Ways Women Can Build Career-Enhancing Relationships

 

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About a month ago, I spent the weekend with two friends from graduate school. Though we were dear friends at the time, we’d each spun out into different directions, one to work in health care marketing, one to San Francisco to write a novel. I went to D.C. to work in politics. Though we hadn’t been together in 15 years, the years melted away and we talked from the moment we entered the house until we left, with hardly time to fit it all in.

Most surprising was that while I’d considered this personal time, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about work. Far from where we’d left each other, we now found ourselves running entrepreneurial ventures, dealing with the same ambitions, bringing similar expertise, and managing lives with familiar joys and challenges. It was truly a meeting of kindred spirits, and I left personally rejuvenated and brimming with some valuable business advice I couldn’t wait to try.

So I had to ask myself, “Why don’t I do this more often?

And the answer is of course, time.

For many women, cultivating friendships simply falls to the bottom of our list. We have hectic jobs and pressing responsibilities. And if you throw in motherhood, the time for friends drops way down. According to an article in Parents Magazine, women without kids spend an average of 14 hours a week with friends, while those with children spend only 5 hours a week. (Which, frankly, still seems high to me.)

Much has been written about the personal benefits of friendship to women’s well-being. But what isn’t as often explored is the professional benefits from strong — kindred spirit type — friendships. This kind of alliance is beyond network building, or knowing people in your industry.

Kindred has the word “kin” in it, so it’s about deep and significant bonds with elasticity. It’s about finding a group of friends who share your passions, understand your profession, and can relate to you on multiple levels. In essence, they are your personal board of advisers.

I realize that finding these types of friends isn’t always easy. Chicago Tribune columnist Marla Paul wrote an entire book about the challenges of making friends in adulthood. Yet, it’s worth the challenge.

The kindred spirit friends I have, whether from earlier years or made more recently, are my go-to resources. They’ve been in turn clients, ad-hoc business developers, career coaches, counselors, and on-demand comedians. They’ve helped me grow my business in innumerable ways (and I hope I’ve done the same for them).

And while taking an entire weekend is hard to swing on a regular basis, there are other ways to cultivate a group of your own kindred spirits, and bring the benefits into your own life. Here’s what’s worked for me, and what I’m pledging to do more often:

1. Start your own group of kindred spirits. This takes time on the front end, but if you pick the right people, it will evolve on its own. Start a regular breakfast or lunch group, organize a book or professional development club, or host a rotating business gathering.

If you want to widen the circle, ask your own kindred spirits to invite others to join. Make sure there is ample time for good, open discussion. Keep it simple so management stays to a minimum. Enlist the help of social media. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter groups make communication and cohesion simpler.

2. Double up for networking events with friends. This idea is one of my favorites because it helps on so many levels. We all need to attend networking events from time to time, are they are more enjoyable if you go with a friend. Take an extra step before an event to invite a few friends to go with you. It will encourage you to actually go, enable you to make introductions for each other once there, and best of all, it turns a business event into an opportunity to catch up and compares notes with some of your favorite people.

3. Make something you’re already doing solo a group activity. Yes, it’s another attempt at multi-tasking, but we have to work with the 24 hours we’re given. Whether it’s exercise, dinner while on travel, a drive to a client meeting, or a volunteer committee, see if there’s the possibility for a +1. The most rewarding exchanges I have with friends about work happen when we’re doing something outside the normal course of business.

4. Take the next step to know good business colleagues. How many potential kindred spirits to we see every day at work, but they remain friends at a distance? Nothing changes the dynamic like one-on-one interaction in an informal setting. Break down barriers by inviting colleagues to your home for dinner, or to lunch with mutual friends, or to hear a speaker they might enjoy. The more special and personal the invitation feels, the more likely to deepen the connection.

5. Get involved in one professional networking group rather than spreading yourself over many. Kindred spirits are exactly that because you have so much in common. It’s often a fallacy, and a time suck, to spread time across multiple professional affiliations. In reality, you end up knowing few people well at any of them. Instead, pick the one where people most like you will be, and commit to it. Join a board or committee, and become a regular. You’ll spend less time overall, and get far more for your investment.

6. Keep a running call list to stay in touch. I’ve had one of these in my calendar from my earliest days in the workforce. Keep a running list of people who you should reach out to for lunch, coffee, or even a catch-up email. As someone crosses your mind, write them down — then follow up whenever you have time.

In this way you’ll keep expanding your candidate pool of kindred spirits, and keep your overall network growing. And don’t forget to reach out to friends you haven’t seen in awhile — who knows how similar your lives may turn out to be.

 Note: This blog also appears in Forbes.com.

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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

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