What History’s Greatest Leaders Can Teach Us About Networking

It’s typical for the word “networking” to evoke an involuntary sense of aversion. But when approached correctly, it’s one of the most valuable skills you can develop.

At its core, it is the art of developing real relationships. As author Margaret Wheatley elegantly postulates, “Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.”

Don’t underestimate the power of building relationships for your personal and professional life. Some of the greatest thought leaders in history appreciated this art, so as you approach networking, shift your mindset to embrace the following beliefs:

“Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” — Immanuel Kant

The idea that your “network is your net worth” shouldn’t be taken lightly. In today’s hyper-connected society, the most valuable currency is social capital, a term that specifically points to the benefits of reciprocity: information flow, idea exchange, and collective action. Social capital creates value for those who are connected and encourages the “we” vs. “I” mentality. Most jobs are found through networking and 40% of adult job seekers have found their “favorite or best job” through personal connections. Quite simply, no matter the industry, people are naturally inclined to do business with people they know and like.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” — Dalai Lama

People who are least successful at networking are those who believe that life and business are a zero-sum game. These are the ones who view value as finite — the ones who guard their connections and knowledge because they think that value shared with others results in less for themselves. True networking is about empowering others while understanding that making other people more successful won’t detract from your own success. Real relationships are developed when you champion others and they can sense that you have their best interests at heart.

“I never worry about action, but only about inaction.” — Winston Churchill

Networking can be a drain if you aren’t clear about your intentions. Have a firm understanding of two things: 1. What value you can offer and 2. What value you want to receive. Always approach a conversation with an ear to figuring out how you can offer the most value to the other person, whether that’s domain expertise, relevant connections, or helpful resources. As the old proverb goes, “It’s better to give before you receive,” and the same goes for networking. By authentically and generously sharing your expertise, others will feel compelled to do the same, and ultimately, the pie becomes bigger for everyone.

“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men.” — Albert Einstein

Nothing exists in isolation, least of all our relationships. We live in times that thrive upon interconnection, which is exemplified by the visual mapping of LinkedIn’s second and third-degree functionality. Top connectors understand that networks function upon mutual need and as a result, invest the time and energy required to build trusting relationships that will ultimately pay dividends. When people say they “networked their way to the top,” it means they have embraced the dynamic of reciprocal value exchange and have strategically leveraged their contacts to arrive at their current situation.

“Fortune favors the bold.” — Virgil

Instead of viewing networking as a necessary evil, perceive it as an opportunity to practice revealing your authentic self. Imagine uncomfortably standing in a room of strangers, and the almost immediate relief that swells when someone comes over and actually talks to you. Be that person for others and actively go toward whoever is standing alone. The worst thing that can happen is neither of you have anything in common and can’t offer anything of real value. If so, move on. But just remember, if you never ask, you’ll never receive.

Strong personal relationships are the linchpins of accomplished leaders and successful businesses. Young entrepreneurs and seasoned professionals alike must stop thinking of networking as a manipulative strategy that takes advantage of others’ talents. Rather, embrace networking as the art of relationship-building and begin treating it as such.

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