Go Beyond Networking
Instead of Shaking Hands with Lots of Strangers, Build Relationships and Communities
Back in August, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times about why networking is overrated. The cheeky headline caught my attention; it talks about what good news it is for young, ambitious people that we don’t really need to spend so much time at mixers and networking nights. The idea of networking events is often (and justifiably) met with a groan. However, what really stuck with me from the piece is Adam Grant’s argument that networking is overrated because it is more important to invest your time in creating valuable work than in engaging in small talk with important people.
Do Great Work
To paraphrase what I consider to be his first of two main points: a strong network can indeed help you put your ideas into action, but actually putting ideas into action is what helps you develop your network in the first place. If you spend your time building things that are valuable and interesting, accomplished people will want to connect with you instead of just the other way around.
The idea is that both parties should have something to offer; that way, the connection will be a two way street that can develop into an actual working relationship. If you’re looking for an introduction, you need to demonstrate that you can contribute something to a conversation with the person to whom you’re asking to be introduced. By seeking opportunities to collaborate or even just bounce ideas off one another, a potential meeting has a much different tone because you’re not asking for a one-sided favor.
To clarify, I’m not talking about mentorship here. You might be lucky and encounter an accomplished individual who is willing to take you under their wing and mentor you with the understanding that mutual contribution is not necessarily the basis for the interaction. In this way, mentoring relationships function quite differently than most connections in your network. The person with more expertise has agreed to share that knowledge with the person desiring to learn.
Mentors can be extremely valuable connections, but they make up just a small fraction of your overall network. Outside of the realm of mentorship, networking can feel disingenuous if connections are one-sided. Having your own accomplishments makes things more balanced.
Promote Your Ideas, and Bond Over Them
Grant’s second main point is that in order for your achievements to play an effective role in developing your network, other people have to know about them. However, the focus should be on spreading your ideas rather than just promoting yourself. My takeaway from this is that you should focus on creating stellar, interesting work, and then let that work speak for you.
Grant continues, “The best networking happens when people gather for a purpose other than networking, to learn from one another or help one another.” Networking is often just promoting yourself, but bonding over shared ideas and interests lends a different purpose to meeting people. If you’re the one contributing ideas, your ideas will be the ones that spread.
This brings me to my first main point: when you’re bonding over ideas, you’re moving beyond networking and into the realm of relationship building. Networking is overrated because a networking event is essentially just a room full of people trading contact information, promising to email each other, and very rarely following through on those promises. Everyone is busy, and post-event follow-up emails fall off everyone’s radar because there’s not much accountability to a person you aren’t likely to see again. Even if you do manage to connect with someone on LinkedIn or some other platform right away, you barely know them and there’s no meat to the connection.
Grant suggests learning or helping one another as possible purposes for meeting people, and this is a great foundation for building connections that go beyond the superficial. I’ve been to dance workshops and educational seminars that functioned as ways to meet new people but were not specifically networking events. The environment was more casual and people were able to talk about their ideas instead of their job responsibilities.
The Strongest Relationships are Built in Communities
My second main point follows from there: the other, possibly even more crucial key to building relationships is to address the accountability problem of one-off events. Bonding with someone once at a workshop is a good start, but being part of a community is an even more effective way to have a sustained relationship. When you meet people in a community, you have the opportunity for repeated, spontaneous interactions. That is the basis for building strong relationships.
When you build a community, connections can grow into friendships over time. The people you meet might work in fields that are completely different than yours because you didn’t meet them for the purpose of networking. You can discover where your fields overlap, or learn about each other’s point of view as an outsider to your respective fields. I found it immensely beneficial to my own understanding of the technology that I sell to be able to explain it to people who aren’t sure what the cloud is if I’m not talking about the iCloud on their phone.
There is also always the chance that the people you meet actually are in your field, and you don’t even realize it until you’ve run into each other and chatted about other things half a dozen times. That is the beauty of building relationships in a community- there’s something there to tie you together beyond your job titles. Eventually the casual conversation about the reason you’re in the same room, whether it’s to hear a speaker or practice yoga, bleeds over into genuine curiosity about other parts of each other’s lives.
I’ve practiced at the same yoga studio in Boston for over three years, and I have yoga friends ranging from dental students (very far from my field) to marketing professionals (quite a bit closer). I didn’t learn what most of them did for work until we had chatted about yoga mats and nearby restaurants for several months.
As a member of IVY, I meet a broad range of people who come together for events surrounding shared interests. Since there is a networking component to IVY, the topic of work certainly comes up a lot faster, but there’s always a reason to interact in addition to talking about work. Furthermore, since there are many different types of events on a regular basis for the same pool of members, you‘re very likely to see the same person many times.
Shared interests and ideas set the stage for building relationships, but the repeated, spontaneous interactions of communities are what sustain them.