What is Networking, Anyway?

by: Shannon McNay

Networking is challenging, I don’t need to tell you that. But there are two factors that add to the ambiguity:

1) “Networking” is a term everyone throws around, implying that everyone seems to know how it works

2) There aren’t many steadfast rules around how to network

Let’s talk about point one. The more commonly we’re told to do something and hear people talking about how important it is to their happiness or success, the more those of who don’t fully understand it feel like we’re the only ones who don’t get it. When it comes to networking, that’s just not true.

Networking is hard. It’s an art, not a science. And what works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. In fact, if you try to act like someone else, you will almost definitely come off as disingenuous. Networking requires practice and its best practices will vary based on your industry.

In short, networking is a craft that needs to be continuously improved upon over time. You will slip up. You will fail. You will make mistakes. Until, someday…

It just gets easier. That’s what happens when you find your networking comfort zone.

Now for point two. Although I just said that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, there are best practices that can help. Problem is, they change as fast as technology does. As soon as you feel like you’ve mastered the art of networking, everything begins to change.

(For example, ten years ago it would have seemed incredibly rude to have a cell phone out while talking to someone. Now the first thing we do is pull out our phones and exchange information.)

The only way to really know how to network is to keep practicing, observing people’s verbal and nonverbal cues in reaction to you, and keep improving.

In short, understand that if you feel challenged by networking, you are completely, 100%, absolutely normal. Anyone who tells you there’s one way to do it or that they’re experts are very likely the ones who need the most improvement. So if this is your first time studying the term – or if you still feel like you don’t really get it – then you’re in the right place.

What is Networking, Anyway?

Whenever I want to learn about something, I like to start with the basics and build my way up. Sort of like creating the foundation of a home – the stronger the foundation, the higher you can build. In that vein, let’s get started with the basics of networking. First, some definitions:

Network:  A group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience for professional or social purposes – Oxford Dictionaries

Networking: The exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business – Merriam-Webster

Traditional networking can lead to instances in which people thrust their business cards at as many people as they can. But if you review the definitions above, it’s pretty clear that simply pimping out your information isn’t good enough.

Selling yourself is not what networking is all about.

Networking is about relationship building. To build a network is to build a group of people from which you can ask for help, offer your help, and exchange ideas.

A network is a circle, not a line. A strong network freely gives as much as it takes.

The problem is many people ignore the circle. They try to quickly close the deal rather than focus on the long-term benefits of building relationships. They miss out on how gratifying it can be to both give and take and to make connections that will last for years to come.

It bears repeating: a network is a circle. If you want to be a valuable member of your network, offer as much as you expect. Do things for the sake of being helpful and not just to see what you can get out of it. Do that and you will build strong professional relationships (and probably be a lot happier, too).

Breaking Down the Principles of Networking

Going back to the definitions above, a network is a group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience. In other words, networking is a lot more than pitching yourself hoping for a job interview. Networking is about building a community.

Information
One example of sharing information within your network is a personal favorite of mine: mastermind groups. Mastermind groups are groups of people within the same industry who meet regularly to help each other. While on the surface these people could appear to be the competition since they’re often in the same jobs, they commonly become one’s most important network in their career.

Mastermind groups share stories, advice, and encouragement. They can help you overcome obstacles and hold you accountable to your next steps. And, in many cases, your mastermind group members can become some of your closest friends.

I’m in two masterminds and they’ve led to so much more than job opportunities. Each month we meet I walk away feeling more educated, inspired, and hopeful. How’s that for great networking?

Contacts
Networking events may lead to a lot of sharing of your own contact information – but that’s not the only way contacts are important. A great networker also makes a practice out of sharing his or her contacts.

For example, let’s say you’re a designer but you have no idea what to do with words. One of your contacts is a company founder who loves your designs but really needs help with copy. You introduce the founder to a copywriter you know. They meet. The intro works out. The founder is happy and the copywriter is happy. Who do you think they’ll think of the next time either of them needs a designer (or knows someone who does)?

This is a prime example of how networking is as much about giving as it is about taking. The more you contribute to your network by making connections, the more your contacts will appreciate you and return the favor when they can.

*A few words of warning:

1) You should never share your contacts purely for the purpose of getting something in return. If you send an email with an “ask” right after you send the intro email, it may leave a bad taste in your contacts’ mouths.

2) When you make an intro, vet the two parties as much as you can first. Anyone you intro should be known for being good to work with and good at what they do – or else you’ll muddy the waters of your network.

3) Never introduce someone without asking them first. If your copywriter friend looks at the founder’s company and realizes they don’t have expertise in that area – or worse, that they would never want to work for that company or industry – then both parties will walk away unhappy. Gather as much information as you can for both before making the introduction – and make sure they are okay with being introduced.

Experience
More than just sharing contacts and information, there may be time that someone in your network needs your experience. This is when you’re getting the thing from your network that you probably expected from the beginning. However, this opportunity may not always come in the form you expect…

There may be times that someone needs help with a project that won’t lead to a full-time job. Or that someone who isn’t very well-connected needs help. Or that someone simply can’t pay much. Don’t walk away just because it’s not exactly the opportunity you’ve been hoping for.

When it comes to networking, you never know what doing one thing for someone can lead to in the future. So you would do well as a networker (or simply as a human being) to not judge your contacts by their titles, their money, or their connections.

If someone in your network needs help and you have time to help them, strongly consider doing so. You’ll firm up your relationship with that person, you’ll learn something from experience (since practice makes perfect no matter what your calling), and you’ll open the door to future possibilities.

As they say in acting: “There are no small parts, just small actors.”

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