Growing your network

ONE OF THE GREATEST NETWORKERS EVER, George Soros, is famously said to have declared that “networking is not working.” This possibly apocryphal quote papers over a fundamental truth regarding our professional interactions: very little comes from just meeting people and chatting with them, unless the effort is constructed as an investment. We’ve all been to conferences that bring together the same crowd well beyond the point where we still have meaningful differences to debate. We’ve all exchanged business cards to politely manage an encounter that quite obviously is a dead-end, only to relegate them to that bottom drawer of our dresser seemingly reserved to no-business cards. LinkedIn, in some ways, is that bottom drawer hugely enlarged by making it digital.

For all these superfluous interactions, however, our interface with the world is ultimately made of real people, with whom we must build genuine relationships. The most useful information, the best business hints, the likeliest job opportunities nearly always come from known individuals if not face-to-face conversations. As we strive to operationalize such leads, the outcomes are even more contingent on the quality of interpersonal relations: we check information with contacts we trust, do business with people we appreciate, and land a new position on the basis of chemistry as much as competence. Indeed, if remote relationships sufficed, why would high-powered business- and states-people spend such an enormous amount of their time physically going places?

The point is that “networking” can be inescapable and productive, or wasteful and gimmicky, depending on conscious decisions you must make about it. To help think through your own answers, here are some lessons-learned as a potential source of inspiration:

  • Invest time discerningly. Networking can be excessively time-consuming: a meeting on the other side of town can easily eat up two to three hours in your schedule, and a conference implying travel can disrupt a whole week. It’s all the more important, therefore, to move with purpose and make opportunities worthwhile. If the principal reason you give yourself for attending an event is “networking,” you might as well be true to your word: review the list of participants, approach people of interest proactively, collect and collate contact details, and follow up appropriately. Incidentally, large gatherings happen to be the professional equivalent of speed-dating: they provide you with a unique chance to have five minute conversations with people you may not want to spend all evening with.
  • Leverage your network. The single most effective introduction to anyone is a recommendation by someone they like, trust, respect, or are indebted to. Never hesitate to request such introductions from people who value your work: as a rule, they are delighted to help, and connecting you is generally cost-free. If they feel uncomfortable at the idea, they simply won’t see it through.
  • Don’t let yourself get boxed in. Various forms of “networking” are more akin to club membership. There are different circuits of public or private events attendees are keen to be involved in mostly because it sets them as part of a desirable group—of senior officials, wealthy businessmen, recognized academics, or qualified nerds. Some expatriates similarly spend an inordinate amount of time socializing among peers, at the risk of cutting themselves off from their broader environment. Granted, many successful careers will hinge on such cliquishness more than nomadic mingling. Still, your goal in growing your network should be to connect with people who open up new horizons and increase your professional, social and intellectual agility. No need to snub like-minded groups, who rarely take outliers kindly; just don’t overinvest in them, making sure you balance them out with less obvious encounters.
  • It costs nothing to try. As a matter of principle, it is useful to look beyond obvious hurdles and assume any connection is possible, with literally anyone. It’s up to you to creatively gain access to the highest levels of power, adjust to social mores that restrict your mobility, or acquire the language needed to engage with whole new segments of the population. Any space of human interaction is structured by numerous explicit and untold rules, which should be mastered, used and overcome, if your work is to gain depth through the process of engaging otherness. Even within our comfort zones there is a pecking order that begs to be subverted: paying due respect to hierarchy on the face of it is no reason not to build egalitarian ties to those supposedly “above” and “below” you.
  • Be generous, regardless of low returns. Some networks are essentially designed to pool resources and generate kickbacks: freemasonry comes to mind, but elitist establishments often produce alumni who collectively, albeit instinctively, work to promote their corporatist interests, displaying equally high levels of solidarity. Other networks, in business for instance, make it natural to call in a favor in exchange for doling one out. In open networks, however, automatic loyalty is not to be expected; instead, you must first define your relevance and value-added to the individual or the group, to earn the trust, respect and assistance you can hope for in return. Generally speaking, whenever you think of requesting a service from someone, do ask yourself: did I ever try to support this person in any, even humble, way?
  • Review your networking practices from time to time, against a check-list like this one: have I reached out to all people concerned by my area of research or expertise? Did I find ways of making myself useful to them? Have I effectively stored their details? Did I send out my work to those it is most relevant to? And did I follow up with meetings wherever pertinent?

Networks that work are hard work themselves and always revolve around interests. This fact of life does not in any way preclude the birth, in their midst, of friendships both solid and sincere; the initial, transactional nature of the exchange therefore should not inhibit you. Quite the contrary: growing your base of interactions makes for diversified and enriching comradeships. Behind the understandable need to carry out your work and manage your career, that is the best of motivations.

Enjoy the occasional, thoughtful boost to your productivity!

Illustration credit: Laying tracks on the extreme front of Prescott and Eastern Railroad in Arizona Territory by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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