It’s all too easy to get the wrong end of the stick with networking. Perhaps it’s the memory of the “networking opportunity” coffee breaks at conferences when people you’ve never met sidle up and try to engage you in polite conversation in order to sell you things that you don’t want to buy. These opportunities can be a nightmare for introverts, who tend to either hide in the toilets or pretend to catch up on emails. The back-slapping extroverts stalk the room distributing their bonhomie in exchange for business cards. And days later the emails start arriving announcing that “you may remember that we met briefly at…” before launching into a sentence that makes its way straight to the delete button.
There are two main reasons why this sort of traditional networking is not working. Firstly, many people seem to mistake quantity for quality. For them networking is all about trophy hunting where size is everything. You don’t even have to have met all the people in your network; as long as you recognise their name or have a group in common that’s all you need to “invite” them to join your Linkedin circle.
The second reason is that there are those who think that the whole point of a network is to get work. For them it’s simply a case of a mathematical formula: for example, Gladhanders Law which states that the greater the number of people in your network the higher the chance that someone will give you work. This, of course, also misses the point. Opportunities come from two main sources: the most important is personal recommendation, and the basis of recommendation is trust. It’s not just about people you know or with whom you’ve worked, it’s about people whom you trust. A good example would be plumbers. Would you employ a plumber whose business card you picked up at a networking event or who you found on the internet, or would you first ask your friends for a recommendation of someone of whom they’ve got real experience?
The second source of opportunities is serendipity. And this is where the new networks can play a role. True networking is about enriching oneself. It is about being in an environment where everyone is giving and everyone is taking. It is about the sharing of ideas and insights, all with the purpose of widening ones own knowledge and understanding. It can be a truly enriching experience. And the point is that the more enriched you are, the more you have to offer; and the more that you have to offer, the more people (and opportunities) will gravitate towards you.
So the moral is that rather than seeking out networking events that will further your career, look for those where you can give and where you can be enriched. And, finally, remember it’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.