In the early part of my career I thought networking was smarmy and unsavory. I tried to avoid it as much as I could, because I didn’t understand what networking was and how to do it properly.
Over the years, I have found that most people feel the same way. They think that networking means schmoozing people with empty small talk to gain some favor or to trick them into giving you something or buying from you. So instead, people resolve to focus on excelling at their job and building a reputation for the great work that they do, so that everything else will just fall into place. Sound familiar?
I did do a good job, and I did get noticed, and I did get promoted, but I also now recognize that I missed out on a lot of opportunities due to my misguided anti-networking mindset.
I sometimes joke that I’m a “born again networker” because I’ve seen the light about networking and I now see its value and understand that it’s not unsavory if you do it right.
The truth is, networking means simply building and maintaining mutually beneficial long-term relationships with others.
Here are three actionable ideas that you can use to make networking work better for you, without the discomfort or unpleasant aftertaste.
Give people unexpected praise or thanks. When I help leaders improve how they give feedback, I recommend that their positive reinforcement and feedback always be timely—given as close as possible to the observed behavior they’re praising.
In the context of networking, I suggest giving praise and thanks as a surprise, when it’s least expected. There are a lot of people that you appreciate in your network, right? So what if you took a moment—daily, or weekly, or monthly—to write a short email, handwritten thank you note, or LinkedIn recommendation for someone you value, telling them specifically what you appreciate about them?
I guarantee that they’re going to love it. Who doesn’t love receiving a positive, specific, and genuine note describing why someone appreciates them? The recipient of this unexpected thanks or praise will feel great and appreciative for the connection with you. You are strengthening an existing network connection with this simple random act of kindness.
A LinkedIn recommendation (not to be confused with LinkedIn Endorsements), is particularly appreciated because you’re also creating lasting value for your network connections. Your one- to three-sentence recommendation will now be on their profile for others to see. This is a testimonial. So it’s like a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s a networking tool because you connect more deeply with that person, create good will between you, and extend your value to your network.
Be a super-connector. You know a lot of interesting, smart people who may not know each other. What if you made it a habit to regularly connect people in your network who should know each other and who you genuinely believe could benefit from being connected? You can add value to both people by making a connection between them. Since you’ve given to these two people, they now value their connection with you even more. This is easy to do and doesn’t take much time or effort, but generates a lot of value for you and others. In fact, Adam Rifkin, known as “the most highly networked man in Silicon Valley,” does this every single day. He just takes five minutes to make a connection between two people. Why not you?
One quick caveat: Make it a double opt-in introduction. What does that mean? Take one extra step and ask each of those two people for their permission before sending them an introduction email to each other. This ensures that each person is open to meeting the other. By sending each of the two people a separate, personal email saying, “Hey, I really think you should meet [so-and-so] because [insert why they should want to meet them]. Would it be okay if I made that introduction?” Now you’ve given them a chance to opt out, or if they both agree, you’ve got a double opt-in and you can go ahead with an introduction feeling comfortable that you’re not encroaching on anybody’s schedule.
Be a fascination detective. When you see networking as empty small talk, you naturally feel repelled by the whole idea of networking in the first place. And even if you want to connect with people and strike up that first conversation, it’s often challenging to find common interests.
You worry that perhaps the other person won’t find you interesting enough, that you won’t naturally connect, or that you won’t have anything in common or that they will judge you somehow.
Yes, there will be people with whom you have very little in common or not-great chemistry. But we tend to give up too soon or have unrealistically low expectations. We don’t give most of these potential connections enough of a chance to succeed. And that’s because most of us are in a judging mode when we enter those first introductory conversations with people.
I suggest that when starting a conversation, be more curious to find what could be fascinating about this person. Genuinely, actively seek possible points of fascination. That’s what it means to become a fascination detective.
If you approach conversations with this kind of lens, you’re much more likely to find something interesting about the other person. One of my favorite sayings is, “To be interesting, be interested.” The more that you are interested in this other person, the more likely you are to find ways to make that conversation fascinating to you. And the more that your conversation partner is going to find you to be a riveting conversation partner. Why? Because you’re interested in them. People don’t get enough opportunities to be in conversations where the other person is sincerely curious and interested in them, so you’re going to feel like a fantastic conversation partner to them. They’ll not only enjoy the conversation, they’ll remember it fondly in the future.
Bill Nye once said, “Every person you meet knows something you don’t.” Be more curious about the people you meet and your conversations will be deeper, more interesting, and lead to better connections. Start by implementing these three easy ideas and you’ll find networking will become less unsavory and a whole lot more effective. Feel free to chime in with your ideas, reactions, and results in the Comments section below.
Editor's Note: Adapted from article that appeared in Links August 2016.
To learn more, join Halelly Azulay at ATD 2017 for the session: Networking Is Not a 4-Letter Word: How to Make Networking Work for You With Zero "Ick" Factor.