Networking Isn't about Meeting People - It's about Helping People

I’ve heard people liken the experience of networking at the beginning of their careers to being at a middle school dance: they have a vague idea of what to do but nothing feels natural. Awkwardness aside, I also detect some contradictory emotions among new hires on the topic of networking. Everyone seems to know they want a strong network (whatever that means) but many struggle with how to go about building one. Some people feel weird or disingenuous meeting people for a motive other than friendship, while others have no problem with that but mistakenly think that a brief hello and swapping business cards is all it takes to make a new connection. What these two extremes have in common is a misunderstanding of the purpose and practice of networking. Once you’re clear on the why, you can discard misperceptions and approach networking in a way that should fit your personality whether you’re a natural extrovert or not.

As always, it’s helpful to be clear on terms. Your “professional network” is simply the group of people with whom you share information and services to your mutual benefit. It’s the set of relationships you have with the potential to expose you to new opportunities, people, and ideas that can further your career. Friends can obviously be part of your professional network, but your contacts need not all be friends. The majority of your connections won’t necessarily be people you have over for dinner, and that’s fine. At the same time, just because you’ve met someone doesn’t make them part of your network either. If you wouldn’t be comfortable reaching out to the person to get their opinion on something important to you or ask them for a favor, then you can’t really count them as a connection.

It’s also important to dispense with misleading perceptions of “networking” so that you don’t miss the best opportunities to forge connections with people. When many young professionals think of “networking”, they picture contrived mingling events in which people wearing name tags force their business cards everyone they see. These events can be an introvert’s nightmare, because you have to be energetic and physically compete for attention. If these scenarios make you anxious then you’re in luck, because these events constitute only a small part of networking. Not only does most networking take place in everyday settings, but making connections is about much more than meeting and chit-chatting. You’ll forge your best connections through your follow-ups after you meet someone. This often happens in smaller, more mundane settings than ballrooms or conference centers.

Something about the networking event image causes many young professionals to confuse networking with just plain old conversation. When you meet anyone whom you think will somehow be a valuable person to know down the road, don’t settle for small talk. Try to instead approach meeting someone as an opportunity to find a way to help them with something. Making valuable contacts is a lot like attracting mentors who will take an interest in your career development. The surest way to solidify a new connection is to do someone a favor or somehow help them out. With that in mind, I propose the Golden Rule of Networking:

Measure your networking success not by how many important people you’ve met, but by how many important people you’ve helped.

The logic is simple: People are more inclined to return a favor than offer one, so break the ice by initiating the exchange. Think of it as a down payment on some future assistance that you’ll get from that person. They are much more likely to pick up the phone for you after you’ve helped them with something than because you made small talk about sports or having gone to rival schools. The more people there are out in the world who remember when you made their lives easier, the nicer a world it will be for you.

So is the golden rule of networking in fact self-interest masquerading as altruism? In word, yes. But remember that the whole reason why people connect with each other professionally in the first place is because at least one of them hopes to benefit from the relationship. We all want to make things happen for ourselves and our teams, because that’s part of our job and we care about our work. If you’ve ever been in a meeting or a conversation with someone and realized that there is nothing you can do for each other, it’s normal to want to politely move on. Otherwise, you’re just hanging out, which is what your real friends are for.

Altruism, Meet Self-Interest

Here’s a simple example from my life that hopefully proves this is not all as Machiavellian as it sounds. I was having dinner with some people recently and found myself talking to a friend’s husband whom I had spoken to only briefly before. Matt (not his real name) told me about the new job he would be starting as a product manager at a tech startup in LA. He had apparently spent several years as a film editor in Hollywood, but the unusual nature of the job had worn him out and led him to switch careers. He had some technical expertise but was a little nervous about his familiarity working with data. Obviously, he wanted to start off on the right foot, but he didn’t know where to start. “Perfect,” I thought. Here’s a guy who knows people in an interesting market and needs skills that I have. Since this was my domain, we talked about his new role for a while and how I thought he could approach it. I could see that what Matt needed was the vocabulary to hit the ground running, so I offered to write up a few questions for him to send to his new boss before he started. Here’s what I sent to Matt:

It only took me a few minutes to write this out, but it was a big help for Matt:

We exchanged a few more emails, so I spent maybe an hour total thinking and writing up my thoughts for Matt. That’s it. I was happy to help him make a good impression with his boss, but keep in mind I also could have easily left things at a helpful conversation over dinner. The follow up solidified it, which also goes to show that going the “extra mile” often doesn’t take all that much. If I want Matt’s help with something down the line, I won’t hesitate to reach out to him now. That wouldn’t be the case if he was just another person I’d met before. Now, it may well be that I never have cause reach out to him, but who knows what the future holds? LA is nice and has a good startup scene. If I want to explore that market someday, I now have one more person I can call.