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 the majority of people feel the same way. They (and I used to) 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, or generally having to give or get something without mutual benefit. 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 because I didn’t pay attention to them 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 how it’s not unsavory if you do it the right way.
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. In general, when I help leaders improve how they give feedback, I guide them to always ensure that their positive reinforcement or positive feedback is really timely—given as close as possible to the observed behavior you’re praising.
But here, in this context of using it as a networking tool, I’m suggesting dropping praise and thanks as a surprise, when it’s least expected. Think about this: 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, whatever works for you—to write a short email, handwritten thank you note, or LinkedIn recommendation for someone you value, telling them specifically what you appreciate about them?
This will come to them out of the blue, and they’re going to love it, because who doesn’t love receiving a positive, specific, and genuine note describing why someone appreciates them or feels thankful for 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.
If you do something like a LinkedIn recommendation (not to be confused with LinkedIn Endorsements), you’re also creating lasting value for your network connections beyond the immediate feel-good effect. Your one- to three-sentence recommendation will now be on their profile for others to see, in perpetuity. There is a lot more value to having someone else toot your horn than you bragging about yourself (like in your bio on your profile). 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 really 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. You’ll create three-way value, because you’re giving each of those two people value by adding a new connection for them, and the third valuable benefit of this connection is for you. 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.
This is an important but underutilized networking best-practice. Let’s face it: We’re all busy and overwhelmed. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of a random introduction email where we didn’t see the reason we need to meet this other person or the value for us, and it just suddenly added another chore (we need to follow up) to our already overflowing to-do list. That’s not going to create value or generate good will toward you.
But send each of the two people a separate, personal email saying, “Hey, I really think you should meet [so-and-so] because [insert value-proposition here for 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 you might worry that you won’t be interested in the other person. Or you worry that they will judge you somehow.
Yes, there will be people with whom you have very little in common or not-great chemistry. Reality is that you’re not going to fully connect with every single human you meet. 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 fighting chance to succeed. And that’s because most of us naturally are in a judging mode when we enter those first introductory conversations with people.
I suggest that when starting a conversation, stop judging and start being 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 than if you don’t use it. 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 becoming less unsavory and a whole lot more effective. Feel free to chime in with your ideas, reactions, and results in the Comments section below.
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