The Fundamentals of Networking

Why is networking important?

No matter what your goals in life, chances are you will not accomplish them on your own. I’m sure you’ve been told that “Anything truly great will not be accomplished by you alone.” I think this is true because when I think back to anything important that I’ve done – none of it was without direction, participation, inspiration, or even compassion of others in my life. Your network will play an important role in your success, no matter how you define it.

Everyone has a network, even those who might not think they do. The people around you, family, and friends, co-workers; are all a part of your network. These groups of people will be the first to support you when you need it, critique you in a safe and constructive way, and all have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.

Whether it’s trying to find that new job, or looking for advice on how to handle a delicate work situation, you can’t afford to wait to start developing a strong network until you need one. Not only does finding and developing relationships with key people take time, but also those people are less willing to help when your first interaction with them is asking for something. Realize that networking is an investment. It is something you do all the time with the understanding that someday it will be well worth the effort.

So how do you start?

Understand what a good network looks like. Remember that your network isn’t just made of people who can help you, but it’s made of people you can help. Serving others is the best way to reach out and expand your network while strengthening yourself in the process. Those with the most successful networks base their connection with others not around what their network can do for them, but by what they can do for their network. Make an effort to understand the goals those in your network have and ask them how you can help them reach those goals. Practice serving them and meeting their needs. Consider reading the following books on networking: The Power of Who, and Never Eat Alone. Articulate what a successful network looks like for you.

Define your network. Make a list of people in your life, best friends, other good networkers, etc. Categorizing people might sound cold and manipulative, but identifying the types of relationships that you already have will help you focus your efforts on those ultimately most aligned with your own purpose in life. Part of the difficulty in maintaining networks is ensuring that you spend the right amount of effort in the right places. We live in a world of constant distraction and often unintentionally neglect friends we really care about. Organizing your key contacts in a way that helps you remember who is really important to you will help you focus where you should. Be sure to differentiate different types of relationships (current work, prior work, close friends, acquaintances, potential career mentors, industry professionals, etc).

Connect with each group of people periodically. Connecting with those in your network is like water to a plant – each relationship needs nurturing to survive. Define your plan for maintaining connection with those in your network. You should set your goals based on the type of relationships you have defined above. Some people it makes sense to connect with once a month, others once a week. Colleagues from prior jobs and those that live in other cities might be best to connect only once a year. Use your judgment. The goal is to stay connected with people enough that your relationship can move forward with them, yet not run out of steam too early or get stuck in the past.

Conquer your fear of rejection. People tell me all the time how they would have asked that person to lunch or approached someone for advice, but they just didn’t think the person would go for it. It’s hard to remember that the worst possible outcome is usually just awkward avoidance or having someone ignore your request. Rejection is never pleasant, but getting rejected is always a risk. Realize that this fear is not based on truth. By that I mean that as much as you want to succeed and engage with others, many times it is only fear that keeps you from doing exactly that. Recognize this paradox and overcome your fear.

Stick to your networking strategy and execute. Take the list of things you know you can do to help others, and do them. Knock them out one by one and follow up with people as you do. Make it a priority to review your progress towards reaching the goals you have for your network periodically. When you say you will schedule a happy hour with someone, do it. Maintain your connections according to your plan. Don’t let the rest of life distract you from reaching your goals.

Remember, networking is always a work in progress. It is not something you turn on and off, but something you add as a part of your life and practice over time. Like many things in business and in life, the clearer your objectives the easier it is to reach them. Intentional action always yields results and (just to add one more cliché here) it’s never too late to start trying.