If traditional business networking makes you feel nervous, uncomfortable — or even dirty — you’re not alone.
A strong business network can open the door to new jobs, opportunities, and new success. In the back of our minds we hear the refrain: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
While the “traditional” style of networking may have been the best option at one point, things are different now.
It’s easy to reach people from around the world, so your options for relationships have increased exponentially.
Instead of the fake schmoozing that people were pressured into in order to build their networks, it’s now possible to take a more authentic approach to building relationships, and be even more successful.
What You’ll Learn
In this article, you’ll learn about the research behind different styles of networking and you’ll get practical tips that you can use today to start building a strong network that you can feel good about.
Your network will be made up of genuine relationships and based on a mutual, enjoyable, and natural sharing of valuable information, resources, and opportunities.
And you’ll learn about the importance of internal networking with people in your own company.
What is Networking?
Networking usually conjures up an image of awkwardly connecting with strangers in order to get something from them.
But this type of networking is a somewhat dated. And it only comprises a small subset of the concept of networks.
Social networks are a natural and prevalent phenomena. We are all embedded in vast social networks through which information, ideas, emotions, and even diseases are transmitted.
Physician and researcher Nicholas Christakis has done fascinating research on what networks are and how our position in networks can affect us in surprising ways.
Watch the video below to expand your concept of your network.
Video: The big picture: How might Christakis’ research into social networks alter your view of business networking?
The Case for Networking
There’s a good reason that we engage in business networking: it allows new opportunities to emerge and it leads to success.
The data doesn’t lie:
- About 85% of jobs are filled as a result of networking.
- One study found a strong correlation between the amount of networking and seniority, as well as billable hours.
- Successful networking within your company can lead to a higher salary and greater job satisfaction.
The best networkers get better jobs, get paid more, and enjoy their careers more.
The Benefits of Internal Networking
Much of the dread or discomfort we feel when we think of business networking applies to meeting strangers at professional events or online.
Harvard Business Review once called external networking “the unpleasant task of trading favors with strangers.” Ouch.
Before we discuss that type of networking — and a better way to do it — it’s important to remember that some of the most effective networking you can do is within your own company.
Research has shown that, compared to external networking, internal networking seems to be more important when it comes to:
- Furthering your career
- Enjoying a higher level of career satisfaction
How to Do Internal Networking
There are many options for internal networking that are natural, enjoyable and beneficial to your career. Consider these easy-to-do actions:
- Attend training events and opportunities provided by your company
- Make a point of sitting with someone else for lunch — or ask a colleague to lunch occasionally
- Participate in corporate social and community events
- Interview someone from another department to get a broader understanding of operations
- Listen closely to others: Remembering personal details shared, like the accomplishments or activities of their spouses or children, can help you connect authentically and enjoy your workplace more in the process.
- Treat all with dignity and respect: no matter how low — or high — on the “corporate ladder” they may be.
- Social networking: Consider judicious use of social media platforms, like Facebook and LinkedIn. Connect and share with colleagues glimpses of your hobbies, fun times, and travels — and comment on theirs.
Why Do We Hate External Networking?
It’s a proven fact, networking makes people feel dirty.
Research: Networking Makes You Feel Dirty
A few years ago, a research team surveyed 165 lawyers about their networking experiences.
Law is a field where networking is of high importance, which makes the study’s results even more valuable.
Less Networking Equals Less “Power” and Poorer Work Performance
They found that feeling “dirty” had the strongest correlation of any emotion when thinking about networking.
- The data supported the hypothesis that people feel dirty while networking because they feel it’s morally wrong.
- Worse, those who felt this way engaged less in networking than their peers, and as a result experienced “low power” and “lower work performance.”
It Just Feels Wrong
In sum, traditional external networking makes you feel like an obnoxious, pushy salesman who’s only out for yourself.
For normal people — who don’t suffer from psychopathy — this feels wrong.
Most people don’t want to be selfish.
Successful External Networking Tips
So what can you do to get rid of this “dirty” feeling and actually enjoy networking?
There’s quite a few ways you can change your mindset about networking, or alternatives to traditional networking that might fit your personality better.
I’ll summarize them here.
1. Change Your Networking Approach
The study we looked at offered a potential solution to feeling dirty, which is a mindset shift.
Instead of going into networking with the mindset of making connections to benefit yourself, you can instead go into it with the intent of creating genuine relationships that are mutually beneficial.
Even if you have no experience, you can still offer gratitude and passion for your work. This alone is enough to develop mentor-mentee relationships.
In other words, it’s not the act of networking that makes us feel dirty, it’s the intent behind it.
2. Develop Your Expertise
One of the biggest reasons that networking feels dirty to people with entry-level and low-level jobs is that they don’t have much to offer.
If you’re trying to build a professional relationship but can’t offer value, the only possibility is that you’re trying to get something without the ability to return the favor.
There are 2 possible paths for you if you’re in this situation.
- First, you can further develop your skills.
If you’re relatively new to your job, spend all your energy getting better at it:
- If you’re a writer, keep learning to write better.
- If you’re a plumber, keep practicing.
- If you’re a woodworker, keep building things.
Over time, you’ll gain experience and develop your skills to the point where you’re confident that you can offer value to someone.
Then you can develop partnerships with other professionals and grow your network.
- The second path is to widen your skills.
- Instead of having a narrow skillset, you learn related skills that allow you to offer to a wider variety of people. It also helps you relate to more people in different situations and find connections to build relationships on.
This is known as the “T-shaped” professional, coined by McKinsey & Company.
Not only do you specialize in certain skills, but you’re also adaptable.
For example, if you’re skilled in garbage disposal, you might also benefit from learning disaster response (flooding, fires, etc.), property restoration, or several other skills.
Pick skills that are related to your profession and that you are interested in.
For example, I’m a writer who has spent a lot of time learning how to code and how to be a better marketer.
3. Build Networks Around Shared Interests
While not to the same extent, professional relationships often share an element of friendships.
You’re much more likely to develop a relationship with someone, professionally or personally, if you share common interests.
Traditionally, you’d have to small talk for a while with every new person you met in order to see if you share any interests.
But now, with social media, you can pre-screen people you plan to contact or meet (at a conference or other event). This will save you a lot of time, and improve your success rate, which will only encourage you to network further.
Head to their Twitter or LinkedIn, and you can quickly get a picture of their interests if they are active. It doesn’t always work, but it’s particularly effective if you have some sort of tech-based job.
As a writer, I might see someone interested in growing their new company. I could offer to help them out by:
- Reviewing their content plan
- Referring them good writers
- Help them write a few pages on their site.
I wouldn’t do this for just any new business. But if the business was on a topic I’m interested in (e.g. fitness, soccer, programming, etc.), and trying to do something innovative and cool, then I’m happy to help support them.
Approaching a connection like this is completely authentic, and you won’t feel dirty.
It’s essentially Tinder, but for finding professional relationships.
It recommends people that you might be interested in getting to know based on your professional goals and interests.
The big benefits are that it saves you time having to hunt people down on social media, and it’s a warm introduction rather than a cold one.
The fact that both of you are looking to network means that you won’t have to explain your motivations behind any messages you initially send out.
4. Share Your Expertise or Learning Experience
This is more of a long-term approach but is good if you don’t like actively reaching out to people.
The idea is to create content about your professional work, projects, and interests, and post about it on social media.
Where to Share Your Expertise
LinkedIn is typically the best choice for career-oriented content, but other networks like Twitter, Medium and Instagram can be good choices if that’s what most people in your industry use.
How to Share Your Projects and Accomplishments
- Write up a case study on a project
- Create or share articles about a topic you’re interested in
- Post pictures or videos or your work
Persistence and Hard Work Pay Off
At first, you won’t get many comments or shares.
But over time, as more people get exposed to your content, they’ll interact with you, and then you can connect with them and send them a message.
You’ll grow your presence and reputation over time by doing this, and grow your network while you’re at it.
Here’s a short guide to building a brand on Twitter if you’re interested in this strategy.
I’m making it sound pretty simple, but expect to spend a lot of time and effort upfront before this really starts to pay off. As a side benefit, you’ll learn new skills related to content creation and marketing.
5. Focus On a Higher Goal
A passion is essentially an intense interest.
Sharing a passion can lead to new contacts and relationships.
If you can find a group of people who genuinely share a passion that you do, you can grow your network quickly.
For example, you might care about:
- The environment
- Animal rights
- Politics (although that can be risky)
- Cats and dogs
Passions are frequently altruistic — such as poverty alleviation or disaster response — but not all are.
Some interests and hobbies may overlap with your professional interests.
For example, let’s say you’re a plumber and you’re passionate about the environment.
If you look around you can find “green” plumbing meetings and groups.
Overlap connections like these are typically very strong, and can help you can build a strong professional network practically overnight.
Professional Relationships: Seek Quality Over Quantity
While most career advisers recommend building a network of hundreds of people — and that’s easy to do with LinkedIn — the result is usually a large network of weak relationships.
“A strong focus on building contacts may lead to many superficial contacts but may prevent individuals from establishing relations with a minimum amount of trust that is necessary to obtain resources from these contacts.”
You don’t need more than 20-30 people in your close network if they’re all strong connections.
6. Follow Up on All Contacts
Everyone has lost contact with someone who used to be a close friend.
It takes effort to maintain and grow a relationship, ideally from both sides.
You need to put in effort to strengthen your networking relationships, particular at the beginning of them when they are most fragile.
Following up is often the difference between building a strong relationship and never hearing from someone again.
How to Follow Up With Business Contacts
Following up with a professional contact differs based on whether you met in-person or online.
Let’s start with what you can do after an in-person introduction:
- Connect with them on LinkedIn
- Send a quick email proposing lunch
- Send them an answer or more information on something you talked about.
First, this gives them an easy way to contact you back in the future. Secondly, it proposes some sort of further discussion that will keep your relationship growing.
When it comes to online introductions, it typically starts out with you sending someone an email or message on social media. If there’s some potential, have a call or text chat to discuss your common businesses interests.
But after that, follow-up. If they gave you some advice on your business, send them an update on how you actually took and applied their advice. Show them that you actually valued their opinion.
Or, if you offered to help them, do the work and send an update, which is as natural as a follow-up can be.
I launched a new side project a while ago and was lucky enough to connect with a few smart people. Here’s an example of the start of a follow-up email I sent to one of them:
If someone doesn’t respond or get back to you after 1 or 2 messages, they’re likely not that interested in being a part of your network. Don’t pester them, as it won’t accomplish anything and could result in growing a bad reputation for being annoying.
Often, people are polite in person and might say something like, “Yes, we should definitely get lunch in the future,” but not really mean it. You’ll find out after following up.
Ready to put your best foot forward? Here are a few insights on networking that I trust you will find encouraging.
“You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
— Zig Ziglar (1926 – 2012), best-selling author and motivational speaker
“One of the challenges in networking is everybody thinks it’s making cold calls to strangers. Actually, it’s the people who already have strong trust relationships with you, who know you’re dedicated, smart, a team player, who can help you.”
“I’ve met so many who have opened doors for me and remained in my life both personally and professionally. After a while, networking doesn’t feel like ‘networking.’ It’s both serendipitous and unpredictable, and something that just naturally becomes part of your work life and your personal life.”
— Narciso Rodriguez, American fashion designer
“Networking has been cited as the number one unwritten rule of success in business. Who you know really impacts what you know.”
— Sallie Krawcheck, Chair of Ellevate and CEO of Ellevest
Before we conclude, here are some popular Q&As on networking. Have a question of your own? Feel free to leave it in the comments section below and we’ll be happy to answer it for you.
Are networking events worth my time?
Networking events present worthwhile opportunities for meeting people in your field or area of interest. Try starting local: find a MeetUp that you’d like to participate in or speak at. Some special events, like those held by General Assembly in Boston, combine informational sessions on technology or design careers with social mixers that include experts in the field. Others may be add-on or after hours parties held at industry conventions, like the Signal conference’s $Bash. $Bash combines education and fun with plenty of opportunities to connect.
$Bash is the Signal conference’s after party. It combines games, virtual reality, and code challenges with music, food, and drink. (Signal is Twilio’s annual conference.)
Networking questions: What are some good questions to ask during networking conversations?
Any question that is well-stated, well-considered and authentic will be received as such. That said, here are some possible, editable questions for your consideration:
- How did you get involved in [activity/hobby/line of work]?
- What makes your product or service truly distinct?
- What do you enjoy most about what you do?
- What’s your biggest challenge currently?
- What does an ideal employee look like for this project?
- How does someone get involved in this line of work? Does it require a degree? (Many positions — particularly technology-related ones — no longer require a degree.)
How can I improve my networking skills?
There are several things you can do for free to improve your networking skills. For example, joining Toastmasters International is free and can help you become more comfortable speaking in front of others. Learning about active listening can improve your listening skills and help you cultivate worthwhile relationships. If you are timid or an introvert, determine in advance of a live networking event, how you’ll explain what you do (and what you have done) in your career. You might also plan to go with a friend so that moving through the room feels more natural and so that you both have a conversation partner you’re comfortable with for the duration of the event. Having a written goal prior to networking can keep you on track. Staying abreast of market news can also make you a more interesting conversationalist.
Video: Toastmasters can not only help you become more comfortable speaking in front of others, it’s a networking event in and of itself. As such, it provides an excellent opportunity to hone relevant communication skills.
It’s completely normal to dread traditional networking.
Yes, it can be effective, but it’s also not the only way you can approach networking.
You now have 6 alternatives that are often much more effective.
These tips are based on changing your mindset and networking goals or utilizing technology to find better matches to connect with.
I’d recommend trying out one tip at a time. So bookmark this page and come back to it as you progress through the different tips.
In the meantime, jump in and share your own networking experiences in the comments below. What have you tried that worked? What challenges have you overcome in networking?
Also: you may enjoy my guides to Active Listening and Mastering Interpersonal Communication. There are practical tips there that can help you become a confident and successful networker.
Photo montage credits: All photos from Unsplash via Unsplash license: Photo of guitarist by Marcus Neto; people by lake by Jens Johnsson; people indoors by MD Duran; Baseball photo by Tyler Thomas; water pitchers by Yomex Owo; photo of cake and desserts by Photo by Ibrahim Boran.