Redefining What Networking Means
Networking reminds me of when I was young and my mom would ask some random kid at the playground – a complete stranger – to play with me.
The kid would look me up and down (I could tell she had zero interest) but would comply anyway because, well, what was she supposed to say?
Satisfied, my mom would smugly retreat to a bench and smoke her Benson & Hedges, while I would be left to play with this stranger, both of us feeling awkward and mortified.
And that pretty much sums up my thoughts on networking. It’s always had a forced, sales-y and even slightly lecherous connotation. I’m going to follow that person into the bathroom. It’s the perfect networking opportunity!
When I decided to go back to work, I knew I would have to “network.” For starters, I was crossing over from journalism to content writing and there were very specific things I needed to learn quickly. Secretly, of course, I was also hoping these people would notice how awesome I was and immediately offer me a job.
Every career article I read encouraged me to “get out there and network.”
“Find someone doing what you want to do and just talk to them! How can they say no?”
It’s that social obligation that kills me. Knowing that someone had to sacrifice precious time for little old me touches on that raw nerve I’m sure we’ve all felt (I hope): what if I’m not worth their time? Couple this with the fact I was looking for a job, which is its own self-esteem asteroid field, and no wonder it brought me right back to the sandbox.
Despite my tender feelings, I networked anyway, but I was careful to limit my mission to information-gathering purposes only. I targeted people with whom I already had a personal connection, said I would only take 15 minutes of their time, and stuck to that.
Much to my surprise, almost everyone was happy to talk with me. I got some good advice, needed encouragement and even a job lead. A couple of people asked to limit our correspondence to email. Others plainly – but politely – explained they didn’t have the time. I understood, respected that and moved on. And I got the information I was seeking.
This, however, is different from the job-search mission of networking, which is when you’re networking for the purposes of getting a job. I am still learning this one.
For example, I would love to work for Pinterest. So, I follow them everywhere and scour their job listings like any good stalker. I also managed to become 1st connections on LinkedIn with some of their branding writers. I audibly gasped when I saw they accepted me. Digital gold!
But … now what? As a former LinkedIn sinner, this was a classic disadvantage of having 500+ connections you don’t know. And I honestly don’t know how to bridge that gap.
So I don’t try. And that’s ok. Because I’ve discovered a new approach to networking, one that relieves takes some of the pressure. The best way to network is to focus on building a good reputation. Networking doesn’t work because you “do” it. It comes as a result of the reputation you’ve earned.
Early in my job search, I took a Copyblogger course on content marketing through Coursera. I highly recommend it. There was a section toward the end of the course about networking, and it offered what I like to refer to as “tips on how to not be an asshole.”
It talked about expanding your network in a way that opens doors and opportunities that you never would’ve thought existed. This is not an exact quote, but this is how I took my notes on the subject:
“Be nice to everybody, treat everyone with respect, because word gets around. Cultivate relationships with interesting people doing stuff you find fascinating. It doesn’t have to be in line with your career goals or work. Build your network out of people you admire. Show up. Pay attention. Don’t lie.”
That really resonated with me.
Now I tend to my network as one might tend a garden. Planting seeds, doing good work for the sake of good work, and paying it forward. Knowing, trusting that the rest will come, the doors will open.
And when someone calls on me for advice or guidance, I’ll take that as a sign that I’m truly part of a strong network.