Networking is one of those words that started out sounding interesting and catchy and came to mean the soulless pursuit of people you can manipulate into thinking you like them and use to achieve your own objectives. Nowadays, only people with fangs and razor-sharp claws participate in ‘networking’. Even in an MBA programme that is ranked in the Financial Times as one of the world’s best, networking started as a bad word, whispered only in dark corners of hidden corridors.
A wise man (my dad) once told me that he thought that out of all of his clients built up over his more than 20 year career, the ones that ended up staying with him were the ones that, had he just met them in the street, would have ended up being his friends anyway. After spending several years in marketing, sales and PR, that’s how I see networking. It’s just meeting as many people as you can to find out with which you might share a connection. You meet a person, you like them, you might even become friends, and then they are in your network. It’s easy. It’s fun. If you do it right, it will make your life better and happier. Why then, does the term ‘networking’ get such bad reactions? Why do we have to take so many courses on how to network and go to all of these networking lunches where people are shoving their business cards at us and we are scrambling to grab as many as possible as if we were in a whirlwind of money, dressed in one of those sticky suits?
The reason networking is hard is because it is really difficult to build and maintain relationships. We have to set ourselves up for repeated and constant rejection, which is something no one likes doing. The only people who are normally willing to subject themselves to that kind of torture are doing it for monetary gain, and we can smell them coming from a mile away. If we could all just go back to the days when it was as easy as passing a note across the classroom that said “Do you like me? Circle Yes, No, or Maybe” life would be a lot simpler. Unfortunately, as ‘grown-ups’ we are expected to have learned how to deal with rejection. While this is horrifyingly wrong, we still have to pretend. This is where the workshops come in very handy. They teach us how to meet people, invite them to do things, make them feel good to be around us, and remember to call or email our new friends every once in a while so they know we like them and are thinking of them too.
That same wise man also told me that it is just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man. Having had serious relationships with both, I would say he was right again – he just left out one very critical factor. It is much harder to maintain the relationship with the rich man than the poor man. I think that this can also be applied back to networking. When there are more people vying for the attention, it is hard to make sure that you occupy some of that person’s mental and emotional real estate. People also know when they have something that a lot of other people want. They get very protective. So if you have decided that you have a good connection with someone who can clearly do something for you in the future, they will definitely be suspicious of your intentions. You will have to prove yourself and start showing them what it is you can do for them that may not be quite as obvious. More than anything, make sure they know that you genuinely like them.
The Ask is the hardest part of networking. We don’t even think twice about asking our friends for things. We know that, as our friends, they are happy to help us. The problem with business interactions is that once you have to ask, you feel like you’ve been found out. They now know that the only reason you have been following them around drooling this whole time is because you have been waiting to beg for something. In order to avoid being caught out, we just tend to hang around and wait for people to know what it is we are looking for. We encounter difficulties because people are not mind readers. At the point when someone is in your network, they already like you. Just as with any of your friends, they are happy to help you out within their means as long as you make it clear to them. My best advice is just ask. The worst you could hear is ‘no’.
After that quick run-through of the basics of networking, we have all cringed at least a few times. Luckily, here in our big happy family of MBAers, Kingsley and Edward came in to brighten our perspectives on networking. I was very happy to have heard them breaking-down my fellow students’ emotional barriers to networking. I really love networking, so I was especially happy when I asked one of my classmates after our networking sessions what he thought and he explained to me that before these sessions he thought networking was a bit contrived and now he understood that, as Brian Marrinan says, “It’s all about building relationships.”
- Send people a follow up email after you meet them.
- Try to remember people’s names
- Offer to do something nice for people. Most of the time they won’t take you up on it, but they will remember the gesture.
- Send even your closest friends an email to say thanks for something nice that they did. If you like to send hand written notes, send an email and then the note so they get the thanks immediately and they have the memento to keep.
- Just remember: Networking really works for you!
– Valerie Price, FT MBA 2011/2012