Paying it forward (or “proper” networking)

This week I had a wonderful experience that was, in part, a result of something I did a number of years ago.  A few years back when I was working for a large multinational, we had reason to need a skilled leadership coach and facilitator. I knew of just the person through his excellent reputation and wholeheartedly recommended him. Even though I had never worked with him directly, I’d seen him present at conferences and heard glowing reports about his work. I was proved correct and he has gone on to do continuing work with the organisation for a good few years now even though I have left. I’ve kept in touch with this acquaintance over the years. We are often working on the same stuff and his years of experience in LOD mean that he can be a good sounding board. This week he offered to spend his own time with me to help coach me through some research quandaries for which I am extremely grateful – just what I needed.

The point of this little gush is that it made me think about networking since I had another experience that very night when I went to a “networking event” for HR practitioners. The atmosphere could not have been more different. The tension was palatable. More than once I felt passed over as my conversational companion saw someone who they “just had to talk to” or even someone who looked more interesting. When it became clear that I was actually there to hear the speaker instead of to offer people jobs or buy their wares the conversation suddenly went south.  Obviously not everyone is like that and I have had great experiences at these sort of events but nevertheless, the two experiences on the same day got me thinking.

We are often told that we must network as professionals, in any field, to keep our skills and knowledge current and to seek out new opportunities. Indeed, research shows that is exactly what successful learners do. They create networks full of interesting and knowledgeable friends and acquaintances from whom they can learn. The big question for me is how this is achieved. I think that the relationship I had with my business acquaintance where we only physically see each other once every five years or so is infinitely preferrable to my experience at the so-called HR networking event. The difference, I humbly submit, is intent. My colleague and I are happy to know each other, share ideas and offer occasional advice or assistance. For people thrown into a networking situation (not all people obviously, I generalise) there seems to be more of a goal to get as many introductions as possible and to evaluate their usefulness in the spot. This is unhelpful and counter-productive to building up a truly good network full of people whom you know and trust.

It is those networks where things like jobs and sales happen. Where mutual trust and a sense of reciprocity are gained over time. Where paths fortuitously intersect at just the right time or perhaps repeatedly over many years. In short, there is no quick way to network, no quick fix, no book that can give you the hot tips because ultimately it’s still about building relationships – the same thing humans have done for thousands of years. I think it’s time, for the sake of our careers and our learning, to start thinking about our relationships more than our networks.  We have relationships with people and a network is simply a collection of linked people. The network isn’t the thing – the people are.

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