Q & A with Professor Jessica R. Methot

During the Center for HR and Leadership Development webinar, “A Social Network Toolkit for Working During and After the Pandemic” on April 22, 2020, presenter Jessica R. Methot, PhD, Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, answered participant questions at the conclusion of the presentation. As additional questions were received that could not be answered during the allotted time for the webinar, Professor Methot has answered them here.
 

Q: What do you think about this statement: "It is easier for men to create a good and strong network than it is for women?”

Professor Methot's response:
On it’s face, I would agree. But it’s more complicated than being “easier” or “harder.” Research shows that men and women form different kinds of networks. For instance, Herminia Ibarra, a Professor at INSEAD, has been studying gender differences in network formation for many years, and identified that while men have more homogenous networks across different resource functions (for example, they become friends with other male colleagues, and they go to male colleagues for work-related information and advice), women have more differentiated, or heterogeneous, networks (in other words, women largely befriend other women at work, but go to men for work-related information and advice). This has historically put women at a disadvantage because their networks were less efficient, and the relationships they had weren’t as “deep” to encompass multiple types of resources. Herminia has a fantastic website with tons of useful materials and assessments, and here’s one example from her webpage: https://herminiaibarra.com/why-strategic-networks-are-important-for-women-and-how-to-build-them/

Recently, Inga Carboni, a Professor and networks researcher at William & Marry, studied the differences between how women shape their networks, and what makes some women more effective than others. Some of the behaviors were similar to men’s, but others were subtly unique. She and her colleagues analyzed network data collected from more than thirty organizations and 16,500 people over 15 years and uncovered 4 best networking practices vital to achieving success. Here is a link to their white paper: https://connectedcommons.com/research-highlights/ and to their subsequent Harvard Business Review article, “The secrets of successful female networkers”: https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-secrets-of-successful-female-networkers.

Taken together, I’d conclude that it is difficult for both men and women to craft effective networks, but women need to employ different strategies.

Q: How do you see networking and networking opportunities change as someone comes closer to retirement age and maybe planning to retire in the next 5 - 8 years?

Professor Methot's response:
This is a great question. We tend to think about networking as being vital during the early stages of our career, or during a formal career transition. But, the types of relationships we rely on change during any major life transition, including edging toward retirement. My colleague, Kathy Kram, and the author of the book I mentioned during the webinar, “Strategic Relationships at Work,” wrote a post about this topic on my website, highqconnections.com: https://www.highqconnections.com/post/how-will-my-relationships-change-in-retirement.

In this post, she explains how she conducted interviews with about 85 people who were approaching retirement, and she synthesized these reports to identify 3 tactics participants used to bring their relationships into alignment with who and how they want to be: 

  1. Limit or let go of their relationships by keeping just a few that helped them maintain a sense of connection to their professional identities, but letting go of those that were more stressful
  2. Deepen relationships that they had neglected during years of prioritizing intensive involvement in their careers, or re-defining the boundaries of those relationships
  3. Starting new relationships that would provide access to and support for a new hobby or service opportunity, such as volunteering 

Rob Cross, professor at Babson University, has also done research on what he calls your “second act,” where people might continue to work in a different career after retiring. He says people tend to overestimate the importance of what they will be doing, when they should be focusing on who they want to be working or going through the transition phase with: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2019/10/02/secret-sauce-second-act/#5baeed5a3d78

All of this is to say, our relationships are just as important as we near retirement as they are earlier in our careers, and we need to continue to keep in mind that they are what help us thrive. 

Q: What would your advice be to enable a new consultancy during your normal work schedule which is intense right now?

Professor Methot's response:
I have worked with cohorts of people who are interested in launching a side-gig in coaching or consulting, and they are often concerned about having to find a whole new client base or set of connections. I frequently see them making the mistake of trying to connect to too many new people too quickly—in other words, building connections broadly—but not leaving enough time or energy to deepen those connections. I see three strategies that are critical here. 

  1. Focus on your personal board of advisors. As I mentioned in the webinar, there is fantastic work on how to build a set of advisors that can help advance your career or other interests. It’s important to have a diversified portfolio of relationships that can provide a variety of support—see details of the different types of advisors and support they can provide, based on research by Rick Cotton, Professor at the University of Victoria, here: http://ilp.mit.edu/media/news_articles/smr/2015/56314Wx.pdf
  2. Build or leverage your boundary spanning ties. By this, I mean thinking about who you can build relationships with to help you achieve a broad-reaching network. There are a few different kinds of these ties, that were identified based on work by Rob Cross, Professor at Babson and founder of the Connected Commons:
  • Creativity ties: Bridge siloed thought-worlds to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas
  • Best practice ties: People with similar expertise to promote depth or efficiency
  • Professional growth ties: Informal mentors who provide development and supplement expertise gaps
  • Vertical ties: Formal and informal sponsors who provide visibility and access
  • Sensemaking ties: Bridges with disconnected people that provide accurate picture of stakeholder network

If you’ve strategically curated your core network (as we talked about in the webinar: https://hbr.org/2018/03/why-your-inner-circle-should-stay-small-and-how-to-shrink-it?), then you are connected to a foundational group of people who can help introduce you to others that can act as boundary spanners, rather than spending your time trying to “cold-call.”

  1. Rob Cross also gives advice in a recent Forbes article about how to succeed in your “second act,” or a “next” career. He says people tend to overestimate the importance of what they will be doing, when they should be focusing on who they want to be working or going through the transition phase with: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2019/10/02/secret-sauce-second-act/#5baeed5a3d78

Q: Interactions with those I normally have great in-person relationships seem more taxing and not quality interactions during this time? Any advice for returning to a quality interaction? 

Professor Methot's response:
Although I responded to this question during the webinar, I want to elaborate a bit. Some really interesting research by Rob Cross, Professor at Babson and founder of the Connected Commons, highlights how face-to-face interactions are more likely to be energizing than virtual ones—there is a buzz around a team or project in which ideas flow freely and individuals are able to easily build upon the viewpoints of others when they are sharing the same physical space. We are observing others’ facial expressions, body movements, and gestures as an expression of their emotions, which helps us relate to others. But, the natural transfer of this energy begins to erode in a virtual environment. To combat this challenge, he offers several strategies: 

  1. Facilitate positive energy exchanges through peer shout-outs, celebrating successes, and having fun
  2. Provide space for energizers to engage. Some people are natural energizers—they lift the mood, make people excited about what is being discussed, and are empathetic. Invite them to lead a team activity during your next meeting.
  3. Think about the bigger picture. Get the team to think about a grand vision, unleash their creative spirit, and build energy around big ideas.\

I also wanted to share some great resources by my colleagues Jane Dutton and Wayne Baker, Professors at the University of Michigan, who have recently been translating their research on high quality connections into actionable tips work interacting virtually with colleagues:

Q: The challenge is how do you connect with people that don’t really have the capabilities of technology?

Professor Methot's response:
This has been a pressing concern for me, as a Professor who recently had to take all of my in-person classes online. I have over 200 students who did not anticipate having to take an online class, and many of them were not in a position to complete their courses from locations (such as their parents’ house) that are not well equipped with high-speed Internet, or who do not own a personal computer. I’ve read heartbreaking stories of students having to travel up to 40 miles to reach a library or parking lot where they can access Internet to join their classes or access online materials. This is undoubtedly the case with some employees, as well, who are now at a disadvantage because they may not have the means to join virtual meetings to have even some semblance of face-time with their teams or supervisors. 

There have been some great articles published recently about how managers need to be more flexible and realistic with their expectations. For example, in this article, Barbara Larson, Professor at Northeaster, recommends to “Set expectations around results and output. In reality, what often gets rewarded is time in the office and online presence, which don’t necessarily correlate with results and output. Managers should think about the nature of the work employees are doing and give as much leeway and flexibility as is reasonable when it comes to things like work hours, especially now that many workers are also parenting at home” or may not have technological capabilities to connect. I love this idea, because it’s not about how much time someone spends in meetings, it’s about how they are able to manage the time they have. 

Also, my colleague and co-founder of our website, highqconnections.com, Kevin Rockmann (Professor at George Mason) recently wrote a blog post with fantastic and actionable tips for how to support our workers right now: https://www.highqconnections.com/post/taking-care-of-your-remote-workers

For instance, he recommends not “managing” them, but “taking care” of them by:

  • Evaluating employees on their performance, not their presence
  • Rethinking your meetings 
  • Don’t enforce core working hours
  • Simplifying communication

Q: The connections don't have to be professional based, correct?  I find it hard to constantly make work-related connections at times.

Professor Methot's response:
Great point - they definitely should not just be professional. We need a balance of both personal and professional support—sometimes we can get these from the same person, and sometimes we need to rely on different people for each. This great article based on research by Rick Cotton, Professor at the University of Victoria, goes into much more depth about assembling your personal board of advisors, which we briefly covered in the webinar: http://ilp.mit.edu/media/news_articles/smr/2015/56314Wx.pdf

In it, he discusses that, in addition to career guides, mentors, and role models, we also need “personal guides” and “personal advisors.” Personal guides are mainly sources of inspiration, emotional support, and motivation, but are not work-related; similarly, personal advisors are friends who serve as personal sounding boards and are there to accept and support you. Deepening relationships with people with whom we’ve lost touch, even if you never worked together and do not have a professional connection, is still vital to your personal well-being.

Q: As a social worker and a parent of special needs, how can I help and support young adults who may have difficulty with interpersonal skills now with the new realm of online media?

Professor Methot's response:
This is such an important question. As challenging as the transition to virtually-mediated communication has been for most of us, it’s even more difficult for those with language or social disorders to adapt. They might also be missing treatment sessions that help with their progression. Admittedly, this is not an area I can claim to be an expert in, but I did reach out to a colleague of mine who used to work with children and adults with special needs, including those with social communication disabilities. Here is an article she shared with me that her former professional association developed recently. It offers some really useful ways that social workers, parents, educators, and others can help children and young adults interact socially during this time:

https://www.asha.org/News/2020/ASHA-Ten-Ways-Children-With-Language-Disorders-Can-Maintain-Both-Physical-Distance-and-Social-Connection-During-the-Coronavirus-Pandemic/. I hope this is useful!