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Advice / Job Search / Networking

The Professional Growth Opportunity You're Overlooking Every Day

Seb Oliver/Getty Images
Seb Oliver/Getty Images

Have you had that moment? The moment when you start a new job and realize you’ll never know 10% of the people that work there? Let alone all of them. Or when you realize the startup that you joined as employee number 42 three years ago now has 700 people and you barely know anyone?

Most of us can relate to this on some level: We stop making an effort to meet and befriend our co-workers once it starts to feel like too much work.

But, let me stop you right there. This way of thinking—and behaving—is a giant mistake. 

Relationships are the most valuable part of your professional identity and one of the most important things that you take with you when you leave a job. If you fail to make a good impression, you leave an opportunity on the table.

Even if your organization employs thousands of people, it’s important to find ways to connect with as many of them as possible. While there’s no one right way of doing this, I’m here to tell you about just one easy trick.

Be the person who engages in a conversation on the elevator.

Awkward, you say? Sure, on occasion it can be. But once you get used to it and strike up a few chats (some meaningful, others merely perfunctory), you’ll wonder why you ever rode up with both eyes glued to your phone. Aside from these exchanges being personally rewarding, here are the top three reasons it benefits you as a professional:

1. You Stand Out

Most people don’t notice the hundreds of interactions they have with strangers throughout their week. Between meetings, deadlines, and our smartphones constantly vying for our attention, we’re too busy to notice much else.

While this might not matter while you wait on line for your iced latte, it’s a different story in the workplace, a place where you want to be memorable. Being the thoughtful person asking about someone’s day, giving them a compliment, or striking up an engaging conversation is something people tend to remember.

I’ve been surprised by how many different opportunities have stemmed from these ad-hoc conversations. In one particularly good one, I was able to set up a coffee meeting that led to being a featured presenter at the country’s leading hourly workforce conference a few months later. In another 50-floor elevator ride, I was offered an introduction to a major foundation and potential grant-maker for a nonprofit organization I co-founded.

2. You Build the Network You Need to Get Stuff Done

One of the more frustrating parts of working at any company is dealing with tedious tasks. From getting your expense report in on time, to upgrading software, to sending out meeting notes, you might have days where you wonder what you actually got done.

While we can all wish we never had to perform a single administrative task ever again, the reality is that most of us have to pull our weight to ensure that things run smoothly. Unfortunately, this can create animosity between co-workers who view each other as bottlenecks or slackers.

I’ve found that it’s a broad internal network that has been the most valuable in resolving these process challenges quickly and amicably. Through these spur-of-the-moment elevator connections, I’ve been able to meet people across all levels.

Often this simple foundation is enough that people will want to help you the next time you interact. Even at large companies all it takes to cut through process and get stuff done is knowing who to reach out to.

3. You Create Deeper Relationships

These days, the boundaries of your personal life and professional life are often blurred. Some people see this is as a negative, but, in reality, the most effective work relationships have always blended the two.

The sooner you break the boundary of purely professional, the sooner you can build a stronger partnership. I’ve found that elevator conversations help me do this quickly.

You’re typically forced to talk about something outside of the job parameters—if for no other reason than not having enough context on each other’s roles. I find that the conversation frequently moves to discussing upcoming vacation plans, hobbies, and where to get the best Greek salad for lunch.

However, to me, the standout conversations are the ones that move into a space of vulnerability, where you might learn about someone’s aspirations or a struggle they’re having. These create a surprising amount of what I think of as moments of connection, which at the very least, leave a lasting first impression.

When these moments are established, it’s easier to conquer challenging circumstances—at the company, team, or partnership level.

Talking to people on the elevator might sound simple, but it’s been one of the most professionally and personally valuable things I do on a daily basis.

Ready to give it a try? If you really want a challenge, try to spark a conversation so engaging that you hold the elevator doors open to continue it. Don’t forget to share your stories with me on Twitter.