Want to become a better networker? Don’t join the cargo cult!

When I started looking for a job, I was uncritically jumping to practices, which were recommended by others — including networking, the general advice being “You should network some more! Invite some great people on coffee dates and pick their brains!” So I did. I found a place that had coffee. I found someone, who had an interesting job, and invited him out for coffee to pick his brain, so I could be one of those “networking people”. Needless to say, it wasn’t the overwhelming success I had hoped for.

However, I quickly learned that there’s a much better and enjoyable way of networking. The answer is simple: Don’t join the cargo cult! What’s a cargo cult, you ask? Here’s a brief summary:

Cargo cult originally refers to aboriginal religions that grew up in the South Pacific after World War II. The practices of these groups centered on building elaborate mock-ups of airplanes and military landing strips in the hope of summoning the god-like airplanes that had brought marvelous cargo during the war

So, basically it means imitating a practice and hoping for similar results, without knowing the principles behind the practice.

Same goes for networking: In order to make networking work for you and get great results, you need to stop focusing on imitating the practice itself, and rather take a good look at how you can apply the principles to your own personal preferences, skills, and values. If you don’t, chances are that mindless imitation will only lead to the bad results and more stress.

If you want to know how you can avoid joining the networking cargo cult, here’s a few tips:

1. Start by asking ‘why?’

When you’re “cargo culting”, you basically have no idea, why you are doing what you are doing. Asking ‘why’ is the simplest exercise, which quickly determines whether or not there’s basis for contacting people and ask them to meet up with you. Start asking yourself these questions:

“Why is it important to meet up this specific person and not someone else?”

“Why are you interested in their work and their company?”

“Why do you meet up with them now and not two months from now?”

If you ask yourself ‘why’ and you still do not have an answer for yourself, don’t bother to call. Wait until you have a real answer and a real reason.

2. Use your research as inspiration — not as dogmas

There is nothing easier, when cargo culting, than to ask your peers or Google for “top tips” and “great questions” and then copy-pasting them to your own networking practice. However, it’s a recipe for disaster if you use advice as, well, a recipe. Ask yourself what you really want to get out of the meeting, and whether or not this advice and questions are moving you any closer to that goal.

3. Network because you want to learn — not because you want a job

Starting to network with the intent of getting “a job” is pretty much the same as dating with the intent of getting “a girlfriend”: First of all, it doesn’t sound very attractive to the person sitting across the table. Secondly, it’s simply not up to you whether or not people want to (or can) hire you. To network with the intent to learn more about a specific job, a certain industry, or even a special method or technology, is a very different approach. Instead of having a mental scoreboard (Network meeting: 9 — Job offers: 0), your interest for learning will shine through, which makes you a much more attractive candidate in the eyes of the company.

4. Go for interesting

You might want to know more about a company or a specific position, but as it turns out the person, you are meeting, is really passionate about agile processes or has an interesting angle on internal communication. Instead of struggling with keeping the conversation “on track” in order to get your questions answered, go for whatever makes the person across the table beam with enthusiasm. It makes for a much more interesting conversation for both parties, and if you have some unanswered questions afterwards, ask if you can email them later.

5. Practice, practice, practice

If you are stuck in a cargo culting pattern, you’ll need time and practice to turn things around. If you start out small, take notes from your experiences, and move slightly outside your comfort zone each time, you’ll move slowly, but surely, away from imitating the practice and out of the cargo cult.