Networking is always mentioned as a necessary activity in developing a successful professional career. Many view networking as a commodity: that contacts and relationships are something to be exploited and collected like assets. They feel that having a full rolodex of highly successful people will open doors, solve problems, and give them some names to drop when needed. However, others are less enthusiastic, and say that networking makes them feel phony and non-genuine. For an activity seen as so vital to success, there seems to be trials and tribulations to developing and maintaining a network.
How should one properly approach networking?
I ascribe to the principle that networking should be a genuine and valued personal interaction. Not a business transaction. If the activity feels phony or non-genuine, then perhaps you aren’t approaching it in a meaningful way. I value my network, but I value the individuals in it even more. I feel very comfortable and genuine with the relationships that I’ve built in my network. My network brings me contentment and satisfaction that I have developed a cadre of relationships that are based on professional respect and mutual desire to maintain the interaction.
With that in mind, here is some insight into how I have developed and maintained my network. These five tenets have guided me through a successful 25 year career replete with a broad network of fantastic people that I enjoy interacting with at every chance that I get.
- It has to be genuine. I care about people and find my daily professional interactions bring joy and energy to my day. Thus, I care about the people I know and seek out in my network, and it is clear to them that I do. I don’t treat them as a commodity or a cold faceless name whose card I need so I can drop their name. My conversations start with their welfare and happiness before business takes place. I want to know how they are doing, personally and professionally, before I delve into drier topics.
- Remember personal details. It is hard to open conversations with network contacts that are supposed to be genuine if you can’t actual remember anything about them (other than their position in the company). I ensure that I remember personal details about my contacts, like I do with my close friends and family. There is one that is a die-hard 49er football fan, one that breeds Pomeranian dogs, one that plays guitar in a blues band, one that has a large sailboat that he takes out for weeks on the ocean every summer, one that spends her free time supporting her husband’s art and sculpture business (runs the website), one that has two kids in the Marines and loves to cook Thai food…….you get the picture. These items are not only conversation-renewal items, but are part of the give and take in a relationship that has some depth. Care about what they care about. And…you might learn some new things from them.
- Give more than take. Like a good friendship, treat your network contacts the same way. They are not to be resource extracted or exploited. I always make it a point to put more into my network than I take out. I buy lunch for people. I will cook meals and invite them over. I go out of my way to help them with a task (e.g. move a refrigerator). I try to help them get professional positions that help their career (e.g. conference session chair, review committees, etc.). I try hard not to ask for anything, unless I really need it. The infrequent times that I do need something, I find that my network responds enthusiastically. Sow more than you reap. It pays dividends in the end, especially when in need.
- Connect them. By definition a network is connected. Don’t just consider your own relationships with people in your network as the nodes. You should be connecting people across your network to each other. Especially when a mutual interest arises. I recently had someone tell me that they were starting to do serious bird watching on the weekends, and were considering taking a birding vacation. I remembered that I had a hard core birder in my network, and connected the two so that the highly experienced person could guide the other on the best places to go, what to look for, etc. These connections are invaluable to people (this is why we network) and those that connect are certainly providing value to all in the network. Connecting is a crucial networking activity.
- Stay visible/touch base. Contact should not be based on having a need. Or just the occurrence of an annual conference or meeting. Reach out. When out of town on unrelated business, call a local contact and have dinner or lunch. Make some calls to contacts in December and wish them happy holidays….and find out how they are doing (you might be able to help them with something). Send them an email or card for their birthday or a holiday. Certainly, renewing personal ties is lifeblood to the relationships in your network. Ensure you keep the contact fresh.
I live by these tenets, and find my network to be robust and enjoyable. People in my network seek me out, and many professional opportunities have arisen out of the blue from people in my network. I work to connect and help everyone in my network where I can, and I have found that attitude to be infectious and reciprocated. I enjoy the interactions and view my professional contacts as family. They certainly have been a very fulfilling part of my career.
I know many people look at networking as “hard work” and as something that takes a lot of effort and commitment. However, this is true with personal friends also, and the value of the relationships is parallel with the effort put into it. If your professional career is important to you, a deep, connected, and genuine network of relationships supporting it should be also.