So you’re ambitious. You’ve been told to ‘network’. Maybe you’re not in a job and you desperately need to network. Or at least, that’s what everyone tells you. The trouble is, it doesn’t feel right and it isn’t working. What’s wrong?
Networking is a great technique but it can kill your career. You can spend your time talking about nothing to the wrong people. There’s a simple, effective answer to the dilemma.
‘Network now!’ No. Take a breath.
Even great extroverts have their shy moments. Confronted by a roomful of strangers, when you’re feeling vulnerable, you’ll find it tough to strike up conversation, even to make small talk. It’s especially hard when you have an important issue – such as ‘I need a job!!’ – consuming you.
A ‘networking’ mindset feels wrong. Whether you’re in a new senior role or in transition, it feels wrong when it leads to sterile, polite and empty conversations. You know that’s not a good start when what you need are strong, genuine, helpful relationships.
Poor networking also isolates you. The room becomes a task and the people just implements, for getting what you want. By trying hard to network and to create the right impression, you simply create the impression that you are ‘someone who tries hard to network’. Your façade is transparent. You end up busy but disconnected.
The insight you need to accelerate your career will not come from casual conversation. You need depth. You need other people to understand you well in order to explain your capabilities to others. You need real connection to find trusted collaborators who know the value of your gifts. Ironically, the more desperately you seek people to ‘sell you’ the less likely you are to find people who ‘get you’.
Do you recognise these feelings?
Here’s what some of my clients have said about networking:
- ‘I don’t know where to start. I’m the MD, that’s true, but I’m new to this industry and I don’t know who I need to connect to. Even the Board have said it’s just up to me.’
- ‘I’ve blundered around at cocktail parties & business lunches. I’ve been to networking events and felt like a total sham. I’m terrible at it! But I’m told I need to do it to get a job.’
- ‘Well, I have this eerie silence. I’ve sent some emails and I’ve been to a few lunches. I’ve had some cafe meetings. But it feels like I’m talking to a brick wall.’
- ‘I keep wondering ‘do they know what a mess I’m in? Can they tell?’ and it feels like I have no self-esteem. It’s shot. So I don’t go. I’m stuck.’
Remember this one vital fact.
You need a community, not a network.
A community is a group of people who give each other free gifts – no strings. They are aware of the whole group, when dealing with one person. They have received help and are keen to repay the community, through you. You give something to them already, without realising it. They want to be more involved with you, not less.
So the answer to ‘networking’ pops out. Expand your community.
As an executive you have five sources of community that relate to the structure of your role.
- Your stakeholders
- Your champions
- Your technical peers
- Your partner strategic thinkers
- Those who share your culture
You already know these people and you can also expand your community along these lines.
In particular, the culture you build in your organisation is founded on values. If you’re the CEO, or a member of the core executive team, you will express your values through your leadership. If you’re the owner the whole organisation probably expresses your values, including ones you don’t know about. For your culture to work, you need the right community around you, including people who share, support and live your values. Just as values are the glue that holds an organisation together, they bind your community to you. You are attractive to the right people because of your values. So flip ‘networking’ – looking for something to join – on its head. To expand your community, invite people to join you.
And they will want to join you because these people are natural companions as your career progresses. They are your Natural Community. And that (not your unnatural Network) is what you seek to find and grow when you are ‘out and about’.
When they see some progress in this way, my clients then say:
- ‘I think I cracked it! I don’t want a network. I just want a few connections that are great. I mean great for me but also great for helping me do this job well. But it took a long time and I spent a lot of time with people who weren’t actually interested or relevant.’
- ‘It works best for me when I feel there’s some kind of mutual benefit; that it’s not just me out there looking for something for myself. Once I offer something I feel I can ask for something. But not at the first ‘networking’ meeting.’
- ‘At first I thought I had a lot of friends, but I realised they were only friendly when there was money involved. They were transactional friends. I can count my real professional friends on one hand. Yet that’s where all my interesting work has come from.’
Bad networking. My personal failure, so I know what it feels like.
I love meeting new people. I am curious about life in general and people in general. I can ‘network’ endlessly. People are fascinating. And because I’ve found myself starting a new life several times, in several countries, I’ve made big mistakes. That’s why I know this is important.
At certain points in my career this enthusiastic general mingling has backfired. I didn’t make the tough choice about who my real community needed to be. I met lots of people, but I wasn’t actively seeking out the right people. There’s a moment where you have to face some realities about yourself, to do this right. I didn’t. I tried to fit in, I tried to mingle with the people I thought I ‘should’ mingle with. I neglected the community that was all around me, if only I’d been more honest with myself. So when things got tough, the relationships I had tried to build weren’t deep enough. I didn’t have enough to offer, and was seeking the wrong help from the wrong people, often in pleasant, outwardly helpful conversations. They were ‘transactional friends’ and, I’m ashamed to admit, so was I.
I hear this pattern so often now from professionals under pressure to perform. The pressure translates into a desperate search for networks that could be useful, rather than the steady exploration of a deeper community that sustains.
How to engage with your Natural Community
Here are some steps that have proven effective for my clients. Tailor this to suit your situation and let me know what else you do – this process is different for everyone.
- Create a simple list
- Believe it or not, it’s helpful simply to list the people you know. This forces you to consider each person you know, however briefly, and check whether they are part of your future or not.
- Define who’s who
- There are two powerful ways to make your list more useful. One is simply to identify who are the most influential people you know, and who are the closest. This gives you two different types of conversation to have.
- Create a Big Agenda.
- Are you seeking to grow by finding a bigger challenge? Are you looking for a new career? Do you need help to do your current role better? Big Agendas like these are the overarching theme to your conversations. If you are clear about this Big Agenda, you don’t need to work out an answer to every question beforehand. You can be natural.
- Make a simple plan
- Each person is different and can help with a different aspect of your Big Agenda. With this reflection, you can focus on one aspect of your Big Agenda that’s more relevant to the individual. Can they best help with knowledge, another connection, feedback, creative ideas, or experience?
- Make the Calls!
- It’s not just a numbers game – but you need to get through your list. Some of the calls might feel tough – especially with more influential people or those you haven’t spoken to in a while. Be clear, give first, respect their time, explain the context. You’ll be surprised at the support you receive.
- The insight you need may come in a flash. It’s more likely to be the result of a common thread to your conversations, a consensus amongst your community about your path. You need time to reflect, to see the pattern, to understand what you have to change and commit to it. So carve reflective time out of your busy day. It’s an investment that brings great returns.
Are you good at this?
The notion of seeking your natural community is a simple insight but a powerful one that leads to big decisions and actions. In my program it is often the turning point for my clients. It brings a halt to wasting time with thin, aimless, generalised networking that kills careers. It has helped my clients create richer, more exciting, more helpful exploratory conversations that eventually led to great decisions about their careers. They sought out their new community, the one they really needed for their future, where they felt more at home and were helped to succeed.
Let me know if finding your community sounds like what you need to do. Tell me about your awkward moments at networking events. But also let me know what kinds of conversations and encounters have proven life-changing for you. Let me know what it felt like to find people who get you and who love to help you!
Stop ‘networking’ – expand your natural community!