Before you say it, I know. You hate networking.
Networking really can suck sometimes. Even the most extroverted and outgoing among us feel a pang of anxiety, distaste, or resistance when it comes to the idea of milling around an event, seeking the important connections, and grasping for business cards or, even worse, trolling the internet (LinkedIn) for strangers who can help you and then trying to quickly ingratiate yourself so as to elicit a favor in your job search.
But hating networking is a mistake.
It’s a mistake not because it is critically important to the rest of your career. It is critically important to the rest of your career, by the way. The more senior or entrepreneurial you get, the more your opportunities will depend on who you know and who knows you than on your resume or accomplishments. Having a robust cadre of friends and associates who like and want to help you is key.
But if you are anything like me, knowing that something is good for you makes no difference.
I know that hitting the snooze button on my alarm 5 times every morning makes me groggier and less enthused to start my day when I eventually do grudgingly put my feet on the floor.
But, oh!!!! The heaven of just 10 more minutes in that sweet cocoon of blankets!!! I can just shortcut my shower. I can just take out the trash tonight after work instead. I can drink the crap coffee in the break room instead of stopping for a latte. I always find new and creative ways to hit that button.
And so do you sometimes!!! Because we do what we want in any given moment, not necessarily what we think is good for us. This is why there is so much attention to creating positive habits in the recent self-development literature. Because the only way to make sure you do something regularly is to turn it into the thing you want in those moments. We are genius at getting what we want!
So the reason not to hate networking isn’t because it’s good for you. The reason not to hate networking is because you have misunderstood what it is in the first place and you are throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Let me explain.
These are the things you hate:
- Standing around possibly trying to balance a plate of appetizers and a glass of wine while still keeping a hand free for shaking and business card collecting, wondering if you look stupid or if there is spinach from the mini-quiche in your teeth.
- Trying to strike up conversations with strangers – some of whom could potentially make or break your career – without having any obvious common ground.
- Jockeying for attention and trying to be memorable to those few important people while all your peers, classmates, and attendees at the networking event try to do the same.
- Delivering your “Elevator Pitch” because you have heard that it’s all about “selling yourself” and “showing the value you can bring to the organization,” which feels incredibly awkward while other people are standing around.
- Asking for someone’s business card knowing that it will either end up in a useless pile in the corner of your desk or that you will soon be reaching out as a supplicant for a huge favor because you want them to help you get your next job.
- Following up with those important people and then trying to worm your way to that favor: “I’d love for you to refer me for this job!” Or “Could you please help me get an interview?” knowing full well it is too soon to ask a relative stranger for something like this.
- Or if you didn’t meet someone at a live event, cold reaching out to them via LinkedIn or email with the extraordinary burden of trying to prove your value AND convince them to help you in the 150 words or fewer recommended word count for such emails.
- The list goes on….
I am going to call this approach to networking: “Find, sell, get.”
Find the person that matters, sell yourself, and then get them to do what you want.
Let me just say: Yuck.
OF COURSE YOU HATE THIS!!! You should!!!
No one enjoys feeling judged and evaluated by peers and superiors.
No one likes to feel that they have to prove their worth.
No one relishes the experience of using or taking advantage of other people.
No one wants to be a burden to others.
These facts are just simply human nature. If you have been trying to fight your true nature and force yourself to network in spite of your very legitimate distaste for the scenarios I described above, then I have a question for you: How’s that going?
My guess is, probably not that great. Sure, maybe you have made a handful of useful contacts along the way, but if you are honest about it, it probably never felt great to you, you probably haven’t fostered truly meaningful relationships with most of those people, and worst of all, it probably wasn’t very much fun.
Life is supposed to be fun. And if it’s not fun, it’s because you are coming at things the wrong way.
So if you hate networking, it is because you aren’t actually networking.
What you are doing is attempting to prove yourself in a world that you don’t believe is predisposed to want to help you.
You are actively placing your own insecurities between you and the new strangers you are trying to connect with, and then hoping against hope that there will be a miraculous break through all of that mess into a meaningful relationship.
You are turning networking into a transaction rather than thinking of it as the process of finding and building meaningful relationships with new friends, collaborators, and supporters.
THAT is what networking REALLY is: creating and maintaining meaningful relationships.
There is a four-step process by which this happens. Check this out and see if you agree based on your own extensive experience building relationships with the many people you love.
You know how to make a connection. It’s as simple as shaking hands, saying hello, and having a real two-way dialogue about something that interests one or both of you.
You know how to give the connection a future. It’s as simple as creating a reason to follow up! “Hey, I’d love to hear more about your company, can we set up a time next week to chat?” Or “I have an article that you must read, let me have your email and I will send it to you tomorrow!”
You know how to maintain a relationship. It’s as simple as staying in touch at a frequency appropriate to the relationship (Best friends? Once a week. Senior colleagues in different companies? Maybe three or four times a year) and seeking to deepen the relationship at each stage. Which brings us to…
You know how to connect people to others. It’s as simple as an email introduction, a LinkedIn hookup, or a shared coffee date.
But here is the REALLY important question….
Don’t you actually like this stuff?
Don’t you love meeting new people with whom you share passions and interests?
Don’t you love finding new ways to get and keep in touch with people that surprise and delight them?
Don’t you love that gratifying feeling that a relationship is deepening and that you are getting to know each other better and becoming more supportive of one another?
And don’t you love the thrill of connecting two people who otherwise would never have met but who might go on to be colleagues, business partners, or even spouses?
You love building relationships.
You love being of service to the people you know.
And you love being part of the process of making the world a more interconnected place.
Admit it. You love that stuff. And what’s more, it’s fun!!!!
And life is supposed to be fun. So why not take this attitude instead of the “Find, sell, get” approach?
So here is the tip: if you hate networking, it’s because you are coming at it the wrong way.
Here is the key to loving networking:
You shouldn’t love networking because it is good for you.
You should love networking because you already love building new connections with interesting people, turning them into friends, adding value to their lives, and introducing them to the other people you love.
That is what networking really is.
Every time you meet someone new, you are adding a new skill set, new possible connections, and new resources to your network.
If you don’t forget the importance of Step 4 – connecting people to others – then when someone becomes your friend, you’ll remember that they are only one step away from contributing their unique gifts to everyone else you know.
Instead of thinking of yourself as a supplicant trying to get ahead through networking, start thinking of yourself as a Network Hero. Recognize that you are a critical hub in the vast network of connections among everyone you know. Acknowledge that you have value to contribute to all of those people and seek new and creative ways to help them, support them, and advance their goals. Make it your job to ensure that everyone in your network benefits from you AND from each other.
If you do this, I promise you will start to love networking, and it will become fun again.