Twenty years ago, I found a group that would become my professional family.
Entrepreneurs and solopreneurs face a unique challenge. Without the built-in relationships with colleagues we'd have as workers in large companies, we are usually on our own. This professional independence might attract us to this career, but it can lead to loneliness.
After experiencing that loneliness for myself, I joined the Alexcel Group, a network of seasoned executive coaches and leadership consultants from around the world. Because we are a global group, we've been operating in "pandemic conditions" for our entire 20 years. We keep in touch through regular emails, text messages, phone calls, and organized videoconferences. Usually, we meet in person for three days, twice a year. This year, we held an online version of our gathering, and found as much community, support, and friendship as we do in person.
Loneliness among American adults is a growing problem. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general, has called it a "health epidemic." Rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s, with 40 percent of adults reporting feeling lonely, according to a 2010 AARP survey. According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, loneliness and social isolation are damaging to health -- as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The good news is the opposite is true. Having strong, fulfilling relationships improves health -- even longevity. According to a Danish study, people who reported playing team sports like tennis, racketball, and soccer lived longer than not only those who are sedentary, but also those who engage in solitary sports like running or swimming. Researchers believe the social benefits of team sports augment the physical benefits of exercise.
Finding community can be challenging for entrepreneurs, especially in this era of social distancing. But we should start by reframing that term and thinking of it instead as physical distancing with social connections.
These four strategies may help you discover new social connections and nurture your existing ones.
1. Build the triangle of friendship
Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship, teaches that relationships exist on a triangle, the sides corresponding to consistency, positivity, and vulnerability. Each quality fortifies the other, and the strongest relationships build incrementally over time. Vulnerability helps us move beyond superficial interactions. Consistency builds trust. Positivity engenders good feelings for both parties. Focus on these attributes when engaging with colleagues. Tune out distractions so you can be present, in the moment, and able to connect.
2. Be the connector
Take the initiative to connect people who may benefit from knowing each other. Make an e-introduction, start a social media group, expand your network, and help others expand theirs, too. Over the years, I have gotten to know many wonderful people through mutual friends and colleagues. Connecting people is like gift giving. It builds goodwill and deepens your relationships with both parties. You send the message "I am thinking of you. May this connection lead to potential opportunity and positive synergy for you."
3. Create "water cooler" moments
I recently worked with a leader who schedules weekly "water cooler" Zoom sessions. Anyone on the team can stop by to talk about anything but work -- just like we'd do in the office at the real-life water cooler. As most of us have become remote workers, we've lost the opportunity for those small, daily moments of connection that build relationships. We must be creative and find ways to replicate them.
4. Embrace physical distancing without sacrificing social connection
It's easy to neglect friendships when faced with packed workdays and a dramatic disruption to the ways we usually gather. But we can find ways to connect safely. Take a physically distanced walk with a friend. Schedule a tennis session. Send a midday, just-checking-in text -- and let it turn into a phone call. These small moments brighten our days, keep us connected, and boost our mental health.
One of the qualities I love most about the Alexcel Group is our ability to be vulnerable with one another. If one of us is facing a professional or personal challenge, we often turn to the group for help. The group leaps to the chance to offer support. The decision I made 20 years ago to join this group has given me not only a professional community but lifelong friends.