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.

31 replies
  1. Brad Maier
    Brad Maier says:

    I think you touch on an important point when you talk about pontificating being a hindrance to networking. It’s of interesting note to people who hate networking due to to their perception of it that the most effective networking tool is actually the ability to listen; not the ability to talk or an outgoing nature.

  2. Rowan Manahan
    Rowan Manahan says:

    About 20% of clients who come through my door are already actively using their network. The other 80% shudder at the prospect. Then I quietly point out that annually, 50-60% of our clients land their next job on the basis of “some level of personal contact.”

    Networking on a symbiotic rather than a parasitic basis is quite acceptable to most people and the points you make about not losing your identity and morphing into some kind of opportunistic leech in order to accomplish what you need really resonate.

  3. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    I enjoyed this one. Then I went over to Annalee’s site. Like, is that a demonstration of anti-networking? She comes out swinging with a hard, short tirade against “middle-class greed, cynicism and sexual repression” and ends by hawking her ability to provide a shallow, I mean tasty little soundbite, like the one above.

    I’m sure that she’s as nice as you say. But the opening gambit? It’s aimed at a specific audience. My guess is angry young people and the media. But then, I guess that advertising is not networking and one’s online presence might deliberately hide one’s face to face personality.

  4. Gloria Hildebrandt
    Gloria Hildebrandt says:

    Going to a networking event where you know no one can be difficult. I don’t believe it’s effective to barge up to people with business cards and ask for leads. The toughest thing to do can be to stand alone and look approachable. Eventually, someone may talk to you. The next time you attend, you may recognize a few people. Networking needs an investment of time. Before it works, people have to get to know and trust you. When this happens, there can be great rewards for networking.

  5. Lee
    Lee says:

    The Yahoo! column says, “You have to be agreeable” in the title. Here, it says “You don’t have to be aggreeable” … essentially says the same thing, however … just not consistent.

    Which kind of leads to: Being liked and being likable are two different things. I try to be likable even though there are some who may not like me.

    * * ** * *
    Interseting point. If I had read this comment earlier maybe I wouldn’t have emailed Yahoo to fix the typo :)

    -Penelope

  6. Seraphim
    Seraphim says:

    Here’s my problem with networking…

    I think it’s true that the best jobs (maybe most jobs?) come through people you know — they come through your friends.

    So, people (like Penelope) think that building your network of friends is one of the keys to job security in the modern world.

    But… friendship for the sake of something else (such as increasing your chances of finding your next job) is not friendship. Friendship for the sake of the *person*, is real friendship.

    Many benefits come from friendship… But to seek friendship, for the ulterior motive of obtaining those other benefits, is unlikely to result in real, lasting friendship. So it’s also unlikely to result in getting those other benefits, too.

    Yes, be nice to people, be genuinely interested in people — not because it’s going to keep you employed, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    * * * * * *

    I agree. But I think that increasingly work friends and personal friends are not so different. As we meld all aspects of our life – including work — we do not need to differentiate between work friends and other friends. Real is real.

    Penelope

  7. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    I took a look at Annalee’s site too. I like her. She reminds me of Lisa Simpson from the episode "The Class Struggle in Springfield."

    Lisa is indignant when sees Kent Brockman's daughter berate a waiter for bringing her a baloney sandwich. (The little snob insists she asked for "abalone.")

    But that indignation evaporates as she sees a man riding a pony. Later she is riding that pony and shouts to her mother "Look Mom, I found something more fun than complaining."

    Sorry for going off topic.

  8. Joshua
    Joshua says:

    Considering I didn’t even know the definition of “networking” until the last month, when I discovered your blog, this entry was a real eye-opener.

    Thanks for demystifying the process for me. I always figured that networking was for the more fiscally secure in their career.

  9. Dave
    Dave says:

    You’ve convinced me that networking is important, but my own personal experience has always seemed to fly in the face of what all these career advice things say:

    Job #; search strategy; result
    1; 3-4 months of door-to-door info interviews, recommendations by high level people, connections, etc.; saw a printed job posting that fit my skills, applied, was hired. Nothing ever came of my rolodex of contacts.
    2; 6 months of volunteering, joining career groups, cold calling, elevator pitching, etc.; saw a job on usenet, sent email, hired.
    3; check craigslist daily for interesting stuff; sent email, got job
    4; check craigslist daily, no luck, called former coworker at new firm; got job. Quit 3 months later.
    5; check craigslist daily for interesting jobs; saw interesting job, sent email, hired.
    6; check craigslist…, noticed job where friend worked, emailed and got job, friend got bonus.
    7; decided to move across country…checked boston.craigslist.com a few times, saw job, sent email, phone interview, visit, hired.
    8; hired career coach, took assessments, wanted to change career, but not take pay cut. saw job on craigslist.; got job

    But looking back over the past 12 years, I suspect that while I have been very successful at getting jobs, perhaps I could have been much more successful if I had really understood how to “work it.” I always viewed networking as an inauthentic exercise. It always felt that way, even though I logically convinced myself, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that I should be networking. However, the reality is that all the effort I expended on attempting to become a networker yielded only frustration, wasted time, and, in the 1 of 2 jobs where it actually yielded a lead, a terrible job that I quit.

    I don’t dispute the value–I have heard many people say they got their jobs through networking. But I know of at least a few people like me who simply sent out emails and got hired. When I was a manager, most of the people I hired came in that way–not from my network (since, it doesn’t exist!)

    But the folks I know like me are people who have resumes that can blow people away–so after getting 2 degrees from MIT, you got a law degree and then did xyz?? But then again, I suspect I’ve been aiming too low in a sense and I need a better strategy to really get anywhere near my potential.

  10. Hunter Arnold
    Hunter Arnold says:

    Penelope-

    Very good points. I think that many are intimidated by networking and these suggestions definitely take that intimidation out of the process.

    I’m always impressed by employees who are willing to come to me or other superiors in my company when they are looking for advice or inspiration. It may not be outright networking, but attempts to get to know others on a more personal level and gain insights from others’ advice will definitely pay you back when it comes time to explore options for your next career move.

    And I’m just barely beginning point #5, but am already seeing benefits from the work I’ve put into it – on that note, thanks for the comment on Tuesday!

    Hunter

    * * * * * * *
    The part where Hunter says he’s impressed by other employees who come forward is very meaningful. I think we are all a little impressed by someone who makes an overture to get to know us. Because we all know that doing that takes guts.

    So when you are thinking of making the overture yourself, remember that  most people will give you a positive repsonse becuase they know reaching out to someone is not always easy.

    -Penelope

  11. neat.
    neat. says:

    Great article–I’d always hindered myself by thinking ‘I’m not a good networker’ (and when I went looking for a career, I paid for this opinion with seven months of very stressful searching). I had always intimidated myself out of networking because it felt sleazy; but of course, it was just my frame of mind.

    Now that I’ve landed a more corporate position, I realize that I’ve been networking all along, I just didn’t know how to take any advantage of my contacts. Now, I know people, and they know me–I help them out, they help me out–who’d have thought it was this easy!

  12. Conor
    Conor says:

    Good points but I wonder about the point about being authentic and “genuinely caring about other people.”

    Sometimes you meet someone and even after endless open questions and different attempts at conversation topics/angles you still find it hard to get interested in them or care about them.

    What do you do if you want to improve a connection with someone who seems like they’re not very interesting to you? If you can’t, or shouldn’t, fake interest then should you drop any hope of connecting with them if you don’t find them interesting?

    I definitely agree with the likeable comment.. I have a good friend who is very likeable and he’s a great networker (and only once ever has worked in a job that wasn’t offered him by someone he knew) by default. I think it’s a nature/nurture thing though that’s hard to develop from scratch in later life (though I’m working at it! ;o))

    * * * * * * *
    I truly believe that everyone is interesting about something. The trick is to help them to find what will be interesting. Asking a lot of questions, for example, often reveals hidden gems.

    That said, there are a lot of people in the world to network with. If you don’t have genuine interest in someone, think about just moving on.

    -Penelope

  13. Evan Woolard
    Evan Woolard says:

    Penelope –

    Before reading your blog, I would have agreed with everything except the “always agreeing” part. I feel compelled to agree while networking. If I don’t agree then I feel I’ll start a big argument.

    Next time, I’ll take your advice and see if we end up in healthy debate.

    -Evan

    p.s. This is my first blog comment. I love your blog and column on Yahoo!

    * * * * * *

    This was a great first comment, Evan. And i’m happy your first could be on Brazen Careerist :)

    –Penelope

  14. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Penelope – I’ve known many people who say that they don’t like or want to network because they equate it with calling up someone that a friend-fo-a-friend knows and asking them for a job. The best networking is letting the people who are naturally in your network – friends, neighbors, family, former and current colleagues – know what you do, what you like, what kind of place you’d enjoy working. And making sure that, in turn, you know what members of your network do, want to do, etc.

    A couple of tips for the networking-shy: NEVER ask someone if they have a job for you; let them know that you’re looking, what you’re looking for, and ask them for some suggestions. People hate to be put on the spot (please hire me), but loved to be asked for advice.

    And for introverted folks who hate “networking functions” where they don’t know anybody. Find someone who is alone and looking awkward and unaggressively approach them. Your opener? Something along the lines of “God, I’m so introverted,I just die at these events. What’s your feeling about them?” Generally, the person is happy to have someone to talk with and you’ll both feel a little less awkward. The person may not turn out to be your best friend forever, but you never know.

  15. Stacy
    Stacy says:

    My favorite thing to do at social functions where I feel left out is to walk up to a group where everyone is talking but that one guy. I stand there quietly for a moment, look interested, and maybe nod or smile (as appropriate). Then turn to the quiet person and ask “so, where you from?” It’s funny; people always like to talk about where they’re from. Then they ask you and you get to talk about where you’re from. Sometimes (*shifty look*) you’re from the same place and then you really have something to talk about.

  16. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    For me the hardest thing about networking is when I go and introduce myself to someone and they tell me we’ve already met. I’m not good at remembering faces (yet).

    * * * * * *
    I have this problem, too. I have no memory for faces. In the past, I have played a whole volleyball game with a partner and then next time I see her I won’t remember that I’ve met her. I found a name for this on the Internet once. Can’t recall it now. But it’s a name for a mental condition when you’re terrible at remembering faces. Sometimes I think I have that….

    Penelope

  17. Erin Gurney
    Erin Gurney says:

    As someone who always found it difficult to network, I agree with what you wrote – it’s something that you shouldn’t attempt only when you are looking for a job. Even though I was always struck by how responsive people were, I felt distinctly uncomfortable approaching them. I realize now it was because of my mindset – I knew that I was basically asking for a favor, or putting myself out there to be evaluated. But now that I’m not remotely on the job market, networking is a lot more fun because it’s just about being social in a relaxing way rather than a goal-oriented way.

    * * * * *

    Thanks for this comment, Erin. It is so true that networking — establishing rapport — with someone is a lot easier if you don’t need anything. It feels best, in fact, if you have a mindset that you have a lot to give, and  you are in the world, looking for people to help. In that context, networking almost seems like a good deed, so it’s much easier to do.

    –Penelope

  18. Dustin Quillen
    Dustin Quillen says:

    I have also found that sometimes networking with certain people can be detrimental. I have become friends with a coworker that likes to kiss up to our boss, and tell everyone that I work with that a project I had completed (in my spare time) that greatly helps our department was his idea, and that I was just the one to make it a reality (basically saying he made me do it) and some of my coworkers actually believe him!

  19. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:

    One of the best places I have found to network is on public transportation. That may be harder in some areas but in New York its pretty easy.

    I usually say a few kind words or share some quick comment with my seat mate on my Metro North train out of New York. We both have something in common, the train from the city. It’s a great way to start a conversation. You will no quickly if they don’t want to talk. The iPod goes on or their head is buried in the New York Post.

    Just the other day I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. We discussed the trains, where we were going, etc. They she asked what I did and I asked her. It turns out she is an executive producer of television commercials and I am working on shooting a 10 minute marketing video. She gave me some pointers, suggested some things we could do on the video and then offered to give me the name of some reasonable effects and titles people. She is the producer of those Budweiser Frog commercials and the new Ebay commercials featuring the "IT" thing. Not bad free advice if you ask me! And all because I wasn't afraid to comment on the new Metro North New Haven line train schedule!

  20. Nikole Gipps
    Nikole Gipps says:

    I can be shy sometimes, so I just start the conversation by asking other people about themselves. I find that small business owners are passionate people, and they like to talk about their lines of work!

  21. John J Wonders
    John J Wonders says:

    For those that are shy don’t rule out going to a local networking event. And don’t use the “I’m shy” excuse, because you don’t have to worry about that.

    The first thing that is going to happen is the person running the event is going to introduce themselves to you and find out a little about what you do. Since they know everyone there they are going to be able to introduce you to someone.

    From there, don’t force it just follow the steps that Penelope laid out and the next thing you know you will be networking.

    John

  22. Cody McKibben
    Cody McKibben says:

    Another great article, Penelope. Thank you for sharing these great tips. I especially like your thoughts about starting a blog–it definitely has helped me build a few great relationships I would not otherwise have had!

    Also, great job on your website redesign–it looks good.

    -Cody

  23. John
    John says:

    What about those of us who are just naturally unlikable? In the last 6-8 years, I’ve become increasingly aware of what seems to be a natural repulsiveness about me. My wife doesn’t agree with my assessment, but I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly unlikable.

    I did hang out with a small circle of ‘friends’ several years back, but after many years of knowing these people it was brought to my attention that most everything I said or commented on pissed off a good deal of them. I wasn’t even trying to be argumentative or belligerent; in fact most of the time I pissed people off was when I was telling a story or joke. This eventually came to a head and resulted in a large public blow up taking place through e-mails that were cc’d to too many people. It was… not pretty.

    I try and be as nice to people as I can, because it’s the decent thing to do and, well, I don’t like jerks so I try not to be a jerk myself. However, I’ve worked at many places where I’ve seen folks come down the hall, poke their head into everyone’s office to invite them to lunch, but they skip right past mine. When you’re the new guy, sure, I can understand that, but I’ve had this happen at places where I’ve worked for more than a year. I’ve been in the awkward situation where they guy nobody likes comes and invites himself to lunch with your group, and I don’t want to put others in that situation, but damned if it doesn’t hurt when you’re that guy and it’s painfully obvious.

    More recently, I worked as a consultant for a company that develops point of sale systems. They were in the process of creating new marketing material, and they took pictures of the entire team. However, with my picture, they decided that they really didn’t like the way my face looked, so they Photoshopped in parts of other people’s faces over mine. The owner of the company made a point to come tell me about it, because he thought it was extremely funny. Now, I no longer let anyone take my picture, because while I don’t particularly feel that I’m all that hideous, what you feel about yourself doesn’t always reflect reality or the way others see you, and I know now that I’ve got a… less than desirable look.

    I can give countless other examples, but this comment has become long enough. Any advice for folks like this?

    * * * * * * *

    John,

    I think you need professional help. There is a wide range of problems people can have at work, and there are a wide range of social abilities that show up at the workplace. What makes your situation unique is that you have noticed a long-term pattern of your social skills getting in the way of your professional life, and your closest friends (e.g. wife) do not seem to understand the problem. So your ability to get feedback and support from friends while you try to make personal changes seems limited.

    A professional therapists/social worker/psycholgist type can help you to understand how other people see you and then help you to understand why you are projecting such a put-offish personality when that is not what you intend to project. This will help you to change.

    Good luck.

    Penelope

  24. Ana
    Ana says:

    Thank you for explaining networking so well. Before reading this I thought that profesional netwroking has to be very profesional. Now I see, it is like social networking, except it is based on a common interest in a profession or an industry.

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