Networking is not a dirty word

Nov 17, 2010 by

I’ve had some disturbing conversations with coworkers and others lately about networking. I’ve heard some young folks at the very beginning of their careers vehemently eschew networking and claim that they won’t do it; in fact that they don’t NEED to do it to get ahead. Well let me be blunt: they are dead wrong. And if they don’t correct themselves, their careers will suffer for it.

A 10 second Google search will bring up thousands of results for networking (computer, social or otherwise) and why it is important – so you don’t have to take my word for it. Let me instead explore the root of this fear and distrust of networking.

Courtesy of Flickr user yummyporky

I think many people equate networking with selling; furthermore they equate selling with something that is bad. Right away I want to challenge the assumption that selling something is bad. I know most people don’t want to feel ‘sold to’ but let’s be honest: this is America and our existence as a country virtually depends on selling…everything. How do you think the founding fathers and mothers got other colonists on their side? They sold them on the idea. How do we manage the country’s debt and keep the economy moving? By selling it (our debt). And on a more personal level: how do you get a good job? You sell your skills and knowledge to an employer. Whether you like it or not, it is a fact – so deal with it.

Now that we’ve gotten over that, let’s move onto the most common form of networking and what most people think of when the word is mentioned: happy hours and receptions. Many people (most?) have a very understandable fear of talking to people they don’t know. I’m an extreme extrovert and even I get intimidated by the thought of attempting to make conversation with people with which I may not have anything in common.

If this is you, then I’d like to offer a few alternatives to build your network without subjecting yourself to the trauma of happy hours:

  • Don’t forget about the network you already have – If you’ve lived anywhere for more than a few months, you have a network (small though it may be). Even if you haven’t lived there long, you have co-workers, schoolmates or other folks that went to your college in the area. The point is: you have a network. So work it! Take colleagues and co-workers out for drinks or coffee and pick their brains. Ask questions about their professional experience, education, interests and tips for getting ahead in your field. Ask them for other people that you can meet with based on your interests and offer to introduce them to others that have shared interests.
  • Informational interviews with people in your field – Start with the recommendations from people you already know and grow outward from there. Some of my best friends have been those I’ve met through social media or through my own contacts (including Rosetta, Julia and Andrea to name just a few). Again, take these people out for coffee and pick their brains. You can find them by searching Twitter for relevant hashtags, connecting through LinkedIn or by paying attention in external meetings that you attend as part of your job. And don’t worry about getting rejected for an interview; though people may be super busy, there is nothing that they like more than talking about themselves (that includes me) so if they say no it certainly isn’t personal.
  • If you do decide to go to a happy hour, take 2 or 3 friends with you when you go – This is a great strategy because at first you’ll have someone to talk to and it will make starting conversations with others easier. Stand near the bar (which everyone else will visit at least once or twice) and be careful to avoid standing in a really tight circle. Hang out in a loose group and make small talk amongst yourselves – don’t get into any deeply personal conversations that will exclude others. And of course, make sure to smile at everyone that passes by; that will encourage them to stop by and chat with you. Finally, make sure you have at least a few easy topics of conversation or questions at the tip of your tongue; these could be the basics like jobs, where people are from or where they live currently or could go into the specifics of the happy hour topic or issue-focus.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up – Once you do some basic networking, you can’t drop those relationships! The whole point of networking is to get to know more people, get some information and leverage that information to get further ahead. If you have an informational interview, send a thank you note. Then send an email every 3 to 5 months to let the person know how you’re doing. I recommend sending a useful article or by sharing something you learned from one of the contacts that person recommended to you. Of course, make sure you connect with them on LinkedIn. And when the time comes, you can ask them for help or advice landing that job or finishing that big project.
  • Pay it forward – Networking is a two-way street. I think people misunderstand this and that is part of the reason they are leery about it. In a good networking relationship you each benefit. That can mean a lot of things: you share useful info on new developments in your field (see the bullet above), put in a good word when a contact is looking for a job and agree to do information interviews with others coming up in the field. By giving back, you can get even more out of that relationship in the future (who knows when that young go-getter will become ED of a nonprofit you want to work for?).

Now that you’ve got some new ideas and a new approach to networking you’re ready to get to it right? Good. I’ll see you out there.

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  • I like to look at networking as a way to help me help you and build a longer term relationship in the process. http://andrea-zak.com/2007/09/23/golden-rule-of-networking/

    Also, re: the network you have — when you’re looking for something, be it a new job or freelance work or a good Chinese restaurant make sure your network knows. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been totally gobsmacked that someone I know had a connection to someone I needed to know, and I just never thought to ask that person. Exploring your extended LinkedIn network is a great reminder that we just can’t know everyone in our network’s extended social/professional circle

    And thanks for the plug, friend!

    • Yes! I love the positive, ‘how can I help you?’ approach to networking. First, it makes it easier to do if you’re thinking about others and not yourself. Second, as you note in your own post, you can actually get far more out of it. After all, people are always more willing to help you (and like you frankly) when you’ve already helped them.

      As for the plug: no problem darlin’! 🙂