In the early stages of launching my consulting business, I needed to build a bigger network of business leaders. As an early career person, I had several mid-level connections, but I needed to make contact with the “decision makers,” individuals that would have the authority to hire me. I joined the local Chamber of Commerce and, as an extrovert and someone who enjoys meeting new people, was feeling excited about the opportunity to network and meet people that would potentially become clients. The first event I attended was an “after hours” business networking event. I got dressed up, grabbed my newly minted business cards, gave myself a pep talk, and headed in with confidence.
It didn’t go as I planned it in my head.
I walked in the front door, saw several groups of people that were standing in pods of 3–4, laughing and having a good time together. I didn’t know how to break into the pods of people, I didn’t really know anyone in my immediate view, and was feeling more and more anxious as time passed by. I have rarely felt more uncomfortable than I did as the person standing awkwardly in the room by himself. I didn’t know what to do. How do I break into a conversation? What do I say when I get into one?
Eventually, after getting a few refreshments and making small comments about food and weather to random people, I found a friendly person who initiated conversation. What do you do? Great question, thanks for asking! I proceeded to talk about myself for roughly 3–4 minutes and all the amazing work I was aiming to do. I could see the energy suck out of her. She couldn’t wait to get out of the conversation. This process repeated itself until I found one person who I knew who I followed like a lost puppy for the remainder of the time. My network grew by 0. I felt embarrassed and disappointed. I had failed at networking and was questioning if I could muster doing it again.
Why does networking suck?
Networking… for some the word just sends chills down the spine. Networking is the thing all professionals do and the thing the vast majority of professionals dislike. If you’re seeking a job, trying to break into a new industry, advance in your current employment, etc., the fact that you are seeking something from someone ramps up the fear, the feelings of inadequacy, and self-doubt. It can genuinely feel like isolation even though you’re in a room full of people.
Networking, as Casciaro, Gino, and Kouchaki put it, can feel “exploitative and inauthentic.” The inadequacy and self-doubt comes from not knowing where to start, how to “sell” yourself, or asking a person you’ve just met for something that matters a great deal to you. It comes from the idea that the exercise of networking is inherently self-serving. It’s about you getting what you want. We want something from someone else and we believe they have something that we need.
But we need to network
Networking, despite it’s fear and “this sucks” inducing tendency, is necessary. Moving through a company and up the ladder, getting a new job, finding new clients, breaking into a market, all has a strong correlation to who you know and your network. Porter Gale wrote a book, “Your Network is Your Net Worth.” There’s a good deal of truth in that. The ability to build/grow/expand/advance in all industries is directly related to who you know and your ability to leverage relationships.
If we know that networking matters, despite the stigma that most of us hate it, how do we move through it and get good at building a network?
How to think about networking
If we’re being honest, we probably would rather be on our phones checking our Instagram accounts and sharing pictures of how “awesome we are at networking” — all to avoid actually networking with people.
Here is the way to think about networking: It’s about adding value. How do you do that? First and foremost, let go of the outcome.
Part of what makes networking feel terrible is the self-serving nature of it. By focusing on the other person, you remove the attention from yourself. When we are self-focused, we tell ourselves some pretty demeaning narratives — you’re not enough; they aren’t going to like you; I hate this and suck at this; I’m never going to get to my target. When we focus on others, those narratives fade to the background and reduce the fear, anxiety, and stress that come with them.
By focusing on adding value, we can let go of the outcome — I need a job, I need a client, I need to break into this new industry, etc — which allows the focus to move from ourselves to directly onto the person you are talking to. You have no control over the outcome either way — it’s not your decision whether they help you or not — all you can control is how you show up in the conversation with that person.
Letting go of the outcome allows you to focus on what really works in networking, adding value for the other person.
And, in reality, the more you add value to the person you are talking to, the more likely they are to give you value. Humans have a natural desire to reciprocate. By serving first, you are more likely to receive what you need in return.
How do you add value?
This doesn’t have to be a hard as it may sound. We often think of adding value as a tangible deliverable that we can give someone else (if you’re a recent college graduate, what can you offer the CEO?). The beautiful thing is that value is scalable. Here’s three thoughts on value you can add while networking:
What work do you love doing?
What are the greatest challenges you face?
What do you hope for in the future?
What are the next steps for you?
What do you need to be able to move forward, and how can I help?
What opportunities do you have in your current situation?
Who is someone you’d like to know?
Side Note: When networking, I often use the “rule of 3.” I ask three questions in a row about a particular thread of the conversation. By the end of the third question, the person I am talking to has generally discovered something new about themselves — a true service!
2. Introducing the person to your own network. One of the great things about networking is getting to share the wonderful people that you know, which in turn expands both of their networks. Don’t be afraid to introduce to other people and make relational connections.
3. Provide resources and/or feedback. What connections can you make to resources you know or have access to? How can you answer or offer support for what they need/are looking for? What feedback do you have that can aid the person you’re talking to into getting what they are looking for? Providing insights, learning, or access to resources can add value to others and deepens the desire to reciprocate.
All of the above provide value for the other person and are avenues each person can take. By shifting focus to adding value to the person you’re talking to, the fear and self-serving agenda slip away, and your confidence increases as you not only build their network but build your own.