Opportunities come from people. The more people you know, the more opportunities you have.
But for many people, there’s nothing scarier than the word “networking.”
Networking doesn’t have to be scary, though; it doesn’t even have to be hard. In this post, I want to give you a new frame for thinking about networking. By the end of this post, you’ll know how to actually stop dreading networking, and start looking forward to it, when you have the right mindset. Plus, we’ll share our best tips for growing your network in a smart way that returns that maximum value to your life.
Why smart people often hate networking
A lot of smart people hate the idea of “building a network”. And I totally understand why — because I used to feel that way too.
- Shouldn’t my good work be enough? Won’t I be recognized and promoted just for being excellent at my job?
- Why do I have to add a popularity contest (which I am likely to lose) to my work day?
- Who wants a bunch of fake friends?
Okay, these are all good questions. They are logical, and for people who have spent their whole lives in school being rewarded for hard work and good grades, they make sense.
Unfortunately, they COMPLETELY miss the point of why a strong network is so valuable.
And you know when I would most often raise my complaints about how stupid networking was? When I was really, really nervous because I was about to head to a meeting or a conference with the goal of growing my network. I was afraid to try, so I’d convince myself why it wasn’t something important to do.
And I think if you’re honest with yourself, the same is likely true for you too. If building relationships doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s a really scary thing to do — and whether you’re scared or you just truly don’t understand why it should matter at all, those are huge roadblocks.
Because the fact is that it matters. If you choose to ignore that fact, you do so to the detriment of your own career and success.
So let’s reframe this issue and get your thinking on the right track.
Why your network should be a top priority
Networking isn’t just about feeling popular or well liked. It is about understanding the full context of what it means to work with other people.
Nobody works all alone. We all work with other people, and our relationships with those people will determine our success. The more relationships you have, and the stronger those relationships are, the more successful you will be.
The Harvard Business Review explains the value of strong networks this way:
“Networks deliver three unique advantages: private information, access to diverse skill sets, and power.”
1. Private information
This is, essentially, trust. When you have close connections with people where you share real, honest information about your work, you build trust.
At work, it is easy to want to keep secrets in order to retain your value. But this actually holds you back, because when you don’t share, no one shares with you.
If, however, you share what you know with people, they are likely to share what they know with you. This opens up a wealth of valuable information to you.
Not only can you find out how the best public speaker on your team got so good at public speaking (and use the skills you learn to improve yourself), but you’ll also be more likely to hear about things like organizational changes before they’re made public.
You can see here that this has nothing to do with popularity, but instead, it has to do with simply focusing on building positive relationships with people. You don’t have to be outgoing to have meaningful conversations with people where you share information and build trust.
2. Access to diverse skill sets
Ever heard the phrase, “two heads are better than one”? You become smarter when you are surrounded by other smart people who have different knowledge and experiences than you.
Getting advice and ideas from other people is like a free pass to being more amazing. For example, engineers who can design with user experience in mind will create better products that need less tweaking, making their work more valuable to their manager and their organization.
Your world (and abilities) are as big or small as you make them. If you don’t branch out, you can’t learn outside of your silo.
So yes, your hard work is important. But your hard work on its own is not as valuable as your hard work combined with the expertise of the people around you. When you grow your network, you grow the value of your contributions.
What do you want from your career? Whatever it is, you will get it from other people.
You never know where opportunities will come from, but the more people that you know, the more opportunities you will get. This is particularly true if you surround yourself with other people who are smart, creative, motivated, and successful like you (or like you want to be in the future).
What do you want to do? A strong network will make it possible for you to do it.
- Want to speak at a conference? It helps to know an organizer who can make a case for you or who already knows why you would be an amazing addition.
- Want a job at a company? It helps to know a superstar already on the team who can guide you through the process and vouch for you.
- Want to try a new skill? It helps to know an expert (or someone who knows an expert) who is interested in helping you because they value you as a friend, peer, or mentee.
Can all of these things be done without a personal connection? Usually. Sometimes. But it will be easier and you’ll be smarter about it (because you’ll have information from someone who knows) if you have cultivated connections in that area.
You will do the best possible job because you have the best possible information and support. We can all accomplish things without help, but why not cultivate help so that you can be as amazing as possible? It is only logical.
How to build an amazing network
Once you know why it’s important to grow your network, then comes the hard part. Actually doing it. Yikes!
For a lot of people, the idea of “networking” makes them cringe. If you’re shy, talking to new people can feel scary. If your mental image of networking is some sleazy salesperson collecting business cards, that’s not that appealing.
So reframe it in your mind. You’re not “networking”, you’re building your network. You are making connections. You are making friends. Investing in yourself and your career.
You don’t have to be aggressive to be be good at building your network. Think of it instead as a good habit that you’re developing. You’re not looking to collect as many friends as quickly as possible; you don’t wake up every morning with the goal of making 5 new connections.
Instead, start living with a mindset of being open to new people and cultivating relationships whenever possible. When an opportunity presents itself, you take it. Simple as that.
Ready to grow your network? Here are our best tips.
Be strategic. Some people are more valuable for you to know than others. You know that person who seems to know everyone and can walk into any room and feel comfortable? That is a great person to know, because adding them to your network gives you access to their vast network. Likewise, adding people with skills you’re interested in learning will be more valuable than adding more people who are just like you.
Get out of your normal context. Many of your most valuable connections will be people who aren’t in your immediate circle (remember, part of a strong network is having access to a diverse set of skills). Try mixing up your social circle by attending conferences and joining groups like non-profit boards where you’ll interact with people from different fields with different perspectives.
Take work connections off-site. One of the best ways to truly connect with a coworker is to leave the office — physically if possible (like going to get lunch or coffee somewhere), but at least mentally by talking about topics unrelated to work. Trust is established when you get to really know a person. Ask about their weekend, their family, and friends — and make a note of what you learn so you can remember to ask them about specific things later (establishing that you were really listening and are really interested in them).
Aim to add value. When you’re growing your network, you want to connect with some people who are more successful than you; however, you don’t just want to be a sponge. No one appreciates feeling used and a bad impression on an important person can actually hurt your career. If you get the chance to connect with someone you admire, make sure you bring value — for example, prepare specific questions tailored to their experience. For people who are more like peers to you, try to help them solve a problem or share a resource that has helped you.
Find a common interest. When you’re meeting someone new, the conversation can be awkward if you don’t know where you want to go. Your goal to should be to find something you are both interested in — that is where a real connection will form. If you’re meeting a stranger at a conference, you could talk about the session you were both just in. If you’re meeting with someone you know from work, talk about hobbies or vacations you have coming up.
Set a networking goal at new events. This works great for introverts. If you’re meeting new people at an event or conference, it can be overwhelming because there are literally hundreds of new people you could meet. Instead of getting overwhelmed, set a quota: maybe it’s to meet 3 or 5 or 10 new people, depending on how you feel. Once you’ve made that number of real connections, you can be allowed to go back to the hotel and enjoy some alone time!
Don’t avoid growing your network – it is the key to your success
Let us know how it goes! And if you want to ask advice or share your stories about growing your network, put your story on our Facebook page!