Are you Networking Wrongly?

Dispelling Common Misconceptions About Professional Networks

We all understand the importance of networks and professional or social contacts. As we grow in our fields, most opportunities come through our networks. You can easily get a job offer just because you mentioned to a few people that you are looking for something different. Your next freelance contract might come from someone who got your name from a friend of a friend. Award nominations, appointments… the list goes on of the potentially beneficial aspects of gaining a great network. In social science, social networks are also referred to as social capital because you can easily leverage your contacts into outcomes with an economic value, hence capital.

Quite rightly, many people recognize the importance of networks and devote large portions of their time trying to cultivate the right networks. We attend as many high profile networking events as we get invited to just so we can meet the “right people” and generate those important connections. But there are a few misconceptions people tend to have as they do this. While there is no one right way to network, there are a definitely a few things people tend to get wrong.

In October 2017, I was sitting in a large hall in Bogota, Colombia. The One Young World Summit, the largest gathering of young change leaders from all over the world, was happening. I was making random conversation with the young man next to me, who worked in the Johannesburg branch of the second largest (According to Wikipedia) professional services company in the world. In the course of the conversation, he said to me, “It’s really great to come to events like this because you really get a chance to build your network by meeting people you wouldn’t normally meet back home.” This struck me as really weird. Did he mean there were no young changemakers in South Africa? He himself was one so what exactly did he mean, I wondered. This leads me to the first assumption that people have about networking

Assumption one: Networking as an exclusive activity

The first assumption is that to gain valuable networks, you have to go to certain elite places and be seen with certain “important people” who can “connect you”. Errr, not true at all.

Networks can be built anywhere and anytime. On the bus, in the mall while waiting for a movie, while waiting for your wife to finish her hair appointment, while waiting on a queue, in the club, in class, on your social media platforms… anywhere and everywhere!

You get networks the same way you meet all the people in your life… through everyday natural interactions. Networking events are simply an opportunity to meet more people in a similar field or interested in the same kind of things as you are but you can meet people anywhere, I kid you not.

Assumption two: The Network values of people

The assumption that certain people make better network contacts while others don’t. Yes, there are certain people that can enrich your network. For instance, a publisher will be a good contact for a writer to have, of course. But sometimes people err in how they go about this. Let me explain.

Say for instance, that I am a writer working on my first novel and I attend a book reading and there is only one publisher in the room. You will most likely find people flocking to that one publisher who stands out as an icon of some perceived goal I want to achieve which in this instance is to publish my book. At the end of the day, that publisher will most likely not remember who I am. I become one more barely discernible face in a sea of other barely discernible faces he met that evening. If I managed to get his card, I most likely won’t get a response when I email because everyone else from the same event will be doing the same thing. Publisher did not come to this world to be answering random emails.

But what if I had taken time to speak to the people seated at my table, I just might have found out that one of the other writers just published a new book with a fantastic publishing house that is looking for novels just like mine. Engage with people around you, sometimes the answer is seating next to you.

Assumption three: Playing into the racial card

The idea that people with a lighter skin colour make better network contacts. I do not know whether to refer to this as racism or reverse racism but I do know a lot of people do it. Some black people I know automatically assume that if they have a white friend, their networks have automatically elevated. We can thank colonialism for this. As Bob Marley urged, you need to emancipate yourself because this is truly mental slavery.

Assumption Four: The Present Focus

Not long ago, my friend took part in an international fellowship and after he completed, we sat down so he could give me the highlights of the program. He told me of the frenzy of the fellowship participants to befriend the facilitators while ignoring their colleagues in class. They wanted to befriend people who seemed to have already made it. Of course, it was only logical to speak to people in obvious and current positions of power who could help pave the way for you as well, right?

Wrong.

At the end of the fellowship, all the participants went back to their home countries and the facilitators stayed in the United States. However, one of the participants went back to his home country and immediately received an appointment to become a Minister. Overnight, he had become a person with immense power and a valuable contact to have in your network. Stop ignoring people around you because you think they do not have value. Everyone has value.

Assumption five: Go for Quantity

The number of business cards in your possession means nothing. It just means you have a way to reach people. The more important question is, “Will they respond once you reach out?”

As a person, business cards have never worked for me. The business card is a handy tool for networking but it is NOT the only tool. Like I said before, you can meet new people anywhere. Instead of quantity, go for quality. Meet people you are genuinely interested in and can have a reasonable conversation with.

Don’t attend an event and flit from group to group all night, sharing and collecting business cards then hurrying off to the next group. At the end of the night, no one remembers you. Do not be so quick to whip out that card. If you attend an event of 200 people and meet only 3 people you genuinely enjoyed speaking to, that’s quite alright.

Establish a real connection that will last until the next time you meet/connect. In fact, you might most likely meet someone and not contact them for anything but in a few months, you could meet them at another event and they will remember you because of a valid connection. In such cases, it is very common for them to turn to their friend and say, “Hey John, remember that startup I was mentioning to you last night, this is the founder. I met her at an event last month and what her company is doing is fabulous.” That friend could turn out to be your main investor.

Assumption six: Put your professional face on

People attend events and put on a professional cap going on and on about the work they are doing. Ugh, booooring. Relax and blend in. Be natural. Make jokes (appropriate ones). If you find out the person you’re speaking to is from Hungary, speak about your upcoming vacation to Budapest and ask them which other interesting places to visit.

Do not fear straying into other topics not associated with the main theme of the event. Discuss climate action at a digital marketing conference, most likely they will remember you BECAUSE of the interesting conversations you had with them.

Assumption seven: Help me alone!

People tend to approach networks with a plan to always take. They never give. They only want people who can help them, they do not seek to engage with people they can support. It’s like they’re carrying an invisible placard around their neck saying “Help Me!”

Networks are like a spectrum. You meet people at different points on that spectrum. Some are ahead of you and some are behind you but usually everyone is moving. You just might be the person to aid someone on their own journey and they might grow to become bigger than you then turn back to help you.

It is not only about taking. You also have to give as well. This is not to say that you should always expect people to repay you but someone definitely helped you on your journey, pay it back by helping someone else and they can go on to help you or someone else. Life is a circle. Pay it forward.

After explaining some of the points I mentioned above to the young man in Colombia, he agreed that he had certainly been getting a few things wrong. I decided to write a post on this to share because in my experience, he is not alone. Hopefully, this has some good takeaways for anyone who reads it.

Any thoughts, additions? I would love to discuss in the comments section including anything I might have overlooked. You can recommend the post by clicking the ♥ button.