Networking: Quality over Quantity

As a young professional in the 21st Century, a piece of advice that I have received time and time again over the past few years is that ‘Networking is fundamental to getting ahead’. I have found this to be an accurate statement, although I should caveat this by saying that skills/competencies and character are also fundamental in progression.

Why is Networking key?

Whatever we say, nepotism is still prevalent in today’s marketplace. It’s a practice that is often chastised, but the fact is that people have a built-in tendency or desire to work with people that they know and trust over those that they don’t know or have experience with. Nepotism comes with a number of potential risks, including the obvious possibility that better candidates are overlooked, and this has contributed in part to the increased focus on equal opportunities legislation and general equality within the workplace, which has had profoundly positive results.

However, networking is still key because within the parameters of this legislation, there are still opportunities for your network to provide unique opportunities for you to progress. In my experience, I have found that networking happens in two ways:

Quantity-based Networking

As with anything, ‘building your network’ is a phrase that is open to interpretation, and one of those interpretations is that building your network should be about amassing a large list of contacts from a broad spectrum with different backgrounds and experience (made easier in the Digital age by sites such as LinkedIn). This Quantity-based approach to networking may be useful in some industries (Recruitment springs to mind) as you open yourself up to hundreds or thousands of potential employers, customers, business partners or new colleagues. However, it does come with the drawback that your LinkedIn timeline becomes a laundry list of job opportunities for which you are not qualified or not interested, and a phone list with six people called John (which you embarrassingly can’t remember which of them does what).

Another issue with this approach is that whilst you may be known by a larger number of people, the likelihood that they know your skills, background and how you can add value in-depth is limited, which may impact their ability to advocate on your behalf or provide you with opportunities. This also works the other way, and you may struggle to call on your network for support when it’s needed.

That’s why I prefer the quality-based approach.

Quality-based Networking

Quality-based Networking, by my own definition, is the organic growth and nurturing of a network of contacts whom you can provide value to, and similarly provide value to you over a sustained period of time. Oftentimes this network will be smaller and will contain a narrower spectrum of experience/background, but does come with the advantage of having greater structural integrity and greater possibilities for engagement and advocacy.

As a person who has a general tendency for introversion, I have naturally had smaller social circles than some of my friends, but the friendships I have forged have been long-lasting and have resulted in some fantastic experiences (including a recent trip to New York).

In my professional life I have been more outgoing and curious to meet a wider spectrum of people, but have followed the same principles as in my personal life, focussing on integrity, loyalty and the ability to relate on a personal level. I believe that these are the foundations of any strong relationship, and when you are able to relate to people in your network on a personal level, you open new doors for professional and social engagements.

As mentioned briefly above, a major benefit of a strong network is advocacy. Every one of us is an advocate… whether it is providing a recommendation on a new restaurant to try, reviewing experiences/products online or telling your friends about a great new show on Netflix, we all advocate for things on a daily basis. This easily translates into our professional lives, and we will oftentimes find ourselves advocating for colleagues, business partners or people within our wider network to provide a particular skill or service. I have been fortunate to be advocated for on a number of occasions, which has opened doors to some great experiences, and similarly I have also advocated strongly for people within my network.

Advocacy is where quality-based networking is most beneficial.

How can you build a quality network?

Here are some things that I have done to build my network and have found particularly effective:

  • Focus on relationships and taking interest in the people in your network (i.e. their backgrounds, experience, extra-curricular interests and passions)
  • Understanding the challenges your network faces — when you understand what challenges the people within your network are facing, you are able to more clearly establish where you can provide support and add value. This should not be underestimated in its importance — showing empathy and providing support is a critical component of developing strong relationships.
  • Being Flexible & Helpful: Taking opportunities to provide any ad-hoc support (even if it’s just to print off some material for someone when they are in a rush) can be an organic way to open doors. Rather than engineering situations to meet people, being available and flexible to support others is an easy way to meet people and show that you can be useful!

In summary, without quantity-based elements you may be narrowing your network and limiting future opportunities, so it is important to put yourself out there. Without quality, you could end up with a network of people where little value can be provided and you may find your opportunities limited in different ways.

There is no magic formula for networking, and I am sure that you will be taking elements of both approaches in your daily lives. As with many things in life, a healthy balance will probably be the most effective.

What are your best tips on networking? How do you tend to build your network?