Today’s careers are made and broken by one’s ability to network.
Please don’t post comments about how unfair this is — I know that people who are bad at networking think it’s not fair that the world rewards networking so much. But that’s the way the world is. You’re not going to change it by whining.
Instead, be giddy: Networking is actually a lot easier than you think. Here are five reasons why:
1. You don’t have to be a manipulator.
Networking is about being nice. It’s about figuring out what someone needs, and determining how to help him get it. Be aware of what people are trying to accomplish in their lives so that you can help them reach their goals — either by helping them yourself or putting them in touch with someone who can help them.
People who are ineffective at networking think you have to manipulate people to get what you want. These are the same people who fail at office politics because they don’t understand that office politics is about being nice. Networking is what you do when you’re doing office politics well.
Networking is about adding value to peoples’ lives. If you do that as much as you can, people will be happy to help you. Be generous with your time and energy as well as your contacts.
You should understand what you have to give, and then look for people who need it. Not only is that the place where you can add a lot of value, but those are also the people who likely have skills and connections that you don’t have, so they’ll be able to help you. The more diverse a group of people you can help, the more diverse the type of help you can get.
2. You don’t have to be funny and clever.
The people who are most afraid of networking think they have to open up a conversation with something really smart or witty. You don’t have to be either of those. The best way to start a conversation is by being nice.
If you pontificate on your brilliant ideas you’ll seem smart, but you won’t necessarily connect with people. And if you tell a lot of jokes you’ll seem funny, but that, also, is not necessarily inviting more conversation. Being nice, though, makes people want to talk. By being nice, you’re saying, “I’m safe to talk to. I’ll listen.”
People want to be listened to, and they want to feel interesting. So you can be good at networking by caring about other people. And you can’t fake being interested — it’s almost impossible. That means you have to genuinely care about other people.
The best networkers understand that everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions. So ask someone an open-ended question, figure out what they’re interested in, and ask them about that.
Your job is to discover what you can learn from people, and you can learn something from everyone. If you really try, you’ll be genuinely interested in what they have to say.
3. You don’t have to network when you’re job-hunting.
Don’t talk to me about job hunters who are networking. Let’s be real: When you need a job, you’re not networking, you’re calling in favors. You’re asking people for jobs.
Networking is something you do when you’re feeling great about your work. After all, who wants to network with someone who either hates her job or doesn’t have one?
This is how networking works to get a job — you make friends. Real friends. Not like the 46,000 “friends” Barack Obama has on MySpace, but the kind of friends to whom you’ve revealed something significant about yourself, and who have revealed something significant about themselves to you.
If you have 30 such people in your life who have diverse networks of their own, you’ll be able to get a job when you need one. So focus on making real connections with people instead of trolling the Internet for jobs. It’s not only a more effective use of your time, it’s a more fulfilling one.
(Wondering if you’re good at it this kind of job hunt? Test yourself.)
4. You don’t have to be agreeable.
Connecting with people doesn’t mean agreeing with them, it means growing with them. Personal growth is one of the best things you can get from a relationship. So it’s fine to disagree with someone you’re getting to know. You send the signal that you’re the type of person who challenges friends to think more clearly. Just be sure to disagree in a non-confrontational way.
A couple of weeks ago I met Annalee Newitz, editor of the book “She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff.” In the short amount of time we spent together, we managed to disagree on a lot. For example, on the question of whether little girls’ affinity for pink is an issue of nature or nurture (I say nature).
But I liked Annalee. She was easy to talk to and full of energy. That we could disagree on a wide range of topics means that we both think about the same wide range of topics.
So don’t assume that networking requires you to agree with everything someone says. It just requires you to care about what the person says. Caring is how you make a connection.
5. You don’t have to get off the sofa.
Here’s a big secret about the blogosphere: The people who are blogging seriously aren’t college kids writing about beer parties. In fact, college kids are generally mystified as to why someone would spend four hours a day writing a blog entry.
That’s because the serious bloggers are professionals, and they’re investing four hours a day on their blog because it’s an incredibly effective and efficient networking tool.
If you want to start a blog, here are some quick and easy steps to get started. But most of you won’t click that link, because blogging is, after all, a big commitment.
Nevertheless, most of you can leverage the blogosphere to do your networking in a way that never requires you to leave your computer. Instead, you can comment on other peoples’ blogs.
This is a very effective way to meet people who wouldn’t normally give you the time of day. For example, companies like Yahoo! and Sun have thousands of blogging employees, and CEOs of small startups often blog as well.
Liz Strauss explains on The Blog Herald that many bloggers focus primarily on building relationships. So find people you admire who blog, and start reading their blog every day. Leave intelligent comments. Most bloggers know the people who leave thoughtful comments on a regular basis. And bloggers like to help people in their blog community.
So you can sit on your sofa and surf all night, typing your opinion on your favorite topics. And after that, you can call yourself a great networker.