In theater, there are always three elements to every performance: pre-show (preparation), performance (show) and post-show (variable). As a young actor, I loved the first two elements and dreaded the last one. When I could surreptitiously slip through the stage door, I was delighted, but leaving the theater through the lobby was stressful; audience members might notice me and comment on my work or – worse – notice and then ignore me. Those moments were intensified on occasion by an even more frightening scenario: meeting an industry professional. Having agents or directors in the audience sent me milling about the lobby, glad-handing like a candidate for town counsel, stammering over every word I spoke.
Throughout my acting career, I had working relationships with three different agents, but only one of those associations was the result of networking; most of my work came from old-fashioned auditioning and strong existing affiliations. I was good at maintaining relationships with my cast- and crewmates, so I was top of mind when opportunities surfaced. These connections taught me to approach my off-stage network with the same five principles I employed in my successful onstage relationships.
1. Be Authentic
Actors create powerful onstage and on-camera relationships behind the scenes first, by bonding and connecting with others. Approaching co-workers with the mindset of a working friendship as opposed to a working relationship changes that relationship from transactional – “What do we need to do?” – to tractional – “What do we want to do, and what can we do together?” This approach requires being willing to spend time getting to know those around you to discover shared values, hopes, dreams, needs and lifestyles.
Since crewmembers often work more than performers, smart actors don’t limit their relationships to fellow castmates. Don’t limit your connections to the people on your team, in your line of business or in your department; you never know where the next opportunity lies. Make it a practice to know people with other job functions. I once got an audition with a theater director because of my friendly relationship with the company set designer. Gather a group for a monthly lunch, and invite people from other areas of the business. Form connections with people in your community organizations, and get to know your children’s friends’ parents or your spouse’s friends’ partners. Even if the newfound connections don’t pay off in professional rewards, you’ll have made another friend – and that’s a priceless reward.
2. Be Reliable
A director once hired me sight unseen for a staged reading based on a mutual director’s recommendation that I was “professional, easy to work with, always prepared and talented.” According to digital marketer, speaker and author Neil Patel, reliability is the top quality to possess in the leadership job market. Regardless of your talent, no one will want to work with you unless you demonstrate preparedness, thoroughness, trustworthiness, readiness and commitment in everything you undertake.
Take reliability further by bringing a sense of playfulness to what you do. Dave Hemsath, author of “301 Ways to Have Fun at Work,” writes that fun may be the single most important trait of a successful organization. When others know that working alongside you is not just good for the project but a good time, they will clamber to have you on their team.
3. Be Generous
Gifted actors know that their performance is elevated by making everyone around them look great, and smart networkers know the same. Be generous with your time and attention, and make every moment count at work. Be present, and focus on the other person. Show genuine interest. Offer praise and endorsement for his or her work, approach and accomplishments. Connecting deeply and attentively to others makes them feel seen, heard and valued, changing how they feel about themselves and about you.
This type of connection requires listening more than talking. For listening expertise, pay attention to theatrical improvisers. They tune in to both what is said (content) and how it is said (context), which helps them react to every signal from their partners. Most of us miss signals all the time. Lean into conversations and listen for others’ inflection, pace and emphasis. Be able to identify and name what you hear, and check in by summarizing or restating what you heard.
4. Be Current
Before headshots and resumes were digital, I found myself dumping stacks of resumes and/or postcards that didn’t reflect my most current credentials. It was crucial to let directors know that I was constantly seeking work and working in any way I could. Today, it’s simpler; we reach thousands with the click of a button. Leverage social media. Instead of posting selfies at your latest social event, be strategic; use Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to find people in your field whom you want to get to know, and comment on a link, post or comment. Even your resume can be more than a representation of your experience; it can be a tool for advice. Ask someone whose opinion you respect for guidance on how to improve it. He or she will get to know your history, expertise and skills, and you will receive first-hand advice from someone you want to notice you.
5. Be Direct
As a novice actor, I always stayed back until agents or industry people approached me. I thought it was being respectful of their time and space, but once I started to be more direct, I noticed their responses changed in positive ways. Here’s how to do it:
- Make the first move. Greet others; don’t hang back waiting to see who approaches you. It requires vulnerability, but in return, you’ll receive the gratitude of those around you for eliminating the awkwardness and discomfort for them. What’s more, they will perceive you as confident, assured and open – someone we all like to get to know!
- Make a positive impression. Introduce yourself simply, and then make it about the other person. Say that you’re looking forward to working together, getting to know them or learning from them, or ask them about their experience. Most of us want two outcomes in social interactions: that others find us interesting and that we can talk about ourselves and what’s important to us. Showing your interest in others will leave them with a positive impression of you.
- Smile. A smile is the single most direct way to change energy and get results. It doesn’t just make others feel good; it makes us feel good.
Many people see themselves as part of a tribe, community or fellowship. They don’t call it a network, and you don’t have to, either. Create your own community of trusted colleagues and allies from a place of authentic generosity and honesty. It will provide support and engagement – and they’re worth a standing ovation for sure.