Networking: As bad as a trip to the DMV?

The word networking tends to evoke strong and oftentimes negative reactions in both students and experienced professionals.  As DU’s Alumni Career Advisor, I can personally attest that networking generates a negative response on par with finding out you have to renew your license at the DMV, getting your wisdom teeth removed or filing your taxes.
I’ve started keeping a running list of my clients’ viewpoints of networking.  Some direct quotes include:
  • “Networking is kissing other people’s butts.”
  • “I don’t like networking…it feels like the relationship is transactional and I am trying to gain something from those with whom I am interacting with.”
  • “The worst part about networking is having to introduce yourself to strangers and make small talk when you really don’t want to… especially when you’re an introvert. It’s painful!”
  • “I want to network, but I don’t feel like I have anything to offer anyone.”
I find this rising sentiment troublesome as developing a meaningful network is one of the single best investments you can make in your professional success. In addition, all of these comments came from intelligent, talented and capable professionals whom I believe in and deeply respect. What does it say if these individuals feel like they shouldn’t or can’t network?
According to leading research:
  • Over 70% of all jobs are filled through networking[i]
  • Networking provides access to knowledge, expertise and influence[ii]
  • Individuals with strong networks experience higher performance ratings, faster promotions and earn more money[iii]
On a personal level, I also find these negative viewpoints unfortunate. Research aside, networking has been one of my richest professional experiences because it involves surrounding myself with people who support and inspire me. The average career lasts 40+ years.  That’s a long time to go it alone.
Defining Networking
When I consider these polar opposite viewpoints of networking, they appear to be stemming from differences in definition.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using the following definition:
Networking = Making friends and acquaintances with whom you share a professional interest
There are two types of networking: Short-Term Networking and Long-Term Networking
Short-Term Networking: Developing relationships with professionals based on a desired outcome or motive (i.e.) job, sale, etc.  This is networking because you need something.
Short-term networking is often time-bound.  For example, a job is posted and the application closes tomorrow. You don’t know anyone at the company.  You have a hard deadline to find a contact and while, in the ideal world you would be able to build a long-term relationship before you reach out, circumstances do not allow you to invest the needed time.
If short-term networking was a relationship style, at its best it would be your most memorable summer fling.  At its worst, a tacky booty call.
Long-Term Networking:  Developing relationships with professionals you admire regardless of whether they can help you.  This is networking without keeping score.
Long-term relationships require a longer time investment…I know this is shocking.  Although they develop slowly and require patience, these relationships can evolve into life-long collaborations and partnerships (did you know that the Founders of Patagonia and the North Face were BFFs????).  Long-term networking also serves as the foundation for mentor relationships.
If long-term networking was a relationship style it would be a courtship or a treasured childhood friendship that has stayed with you into adulthood.
In normal person speak, short-term networking is fast-food and long-term networking is cooking at home.

Cooking at home is not only cost-effective, but also healthier and made from better ingredients; however, there are some days when our best option is to stop at a drive through. Just like there’s a time and a place for fast food, there’s a time and a place for short-term networking but if our whole diet is fast food we will likely develop some serious health problems. Don’t believe me? Just ask Morgan Spurlock.
When people say they hate networking, what they generally mean is that they hate short-term networking because we don’t like to build relationships with ulterior motives. Remember, networking is just making professional friends. Would these same individuals say they hate friends? Of course not, who hates friends? Do you also hate puppies and ice cream?
Of course, the act of making friends is very different from having friends. While we can all generally agree that friendship is a fundamental human experience, the pursuing of relationships (professional, personal or romantic) can be intimidating.
With networking, there is also an added sense that we need to sell ourselves.  This feeling is especially prevalent in short-term networking because we are building relationships with a desired outcome. What’s ironic is that most people hate selling themselves and, coincidentally, most people also hate being sold to. Even Jordan Belfort, aka Leo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” hates sales people. The good news here is that the feeling is mutual.
You are officially released from selling yourself, but you are not released from learning how to network.
The question is not, “How do I pitch myself?,” but rather “How do I go about developing meaningful professional relationships?”  The answer: change your diet.
Limit “fast-food” short-term networking activities and focus on long-term, healthy relationship development.
Got it.  So how do I become a long-term networker?
To develop meaningful professional relationships, consider the following long-term networking guidelines.
  1. Be a fan: If you see a professional you admire, tell them how great a job they are doing and cite specific examples. When a client sends me a thank you note, it makes my day. It means the world to me when I feel recognized and appreciated.
  2. Be genuine: The difference between meaningful networking and brown-nosing is truth and intention. If you think someone is doing a great job, tell them so, but only when you truly believe it.
  3. Focus on what you have in common: Regardless of our level of professional success, we all need meaningful relationships in our lives. If you focus on the differences between you and successful professionals, you will likely become intimidated. Begin conversations with one goal: finding something in common. This could be that you both went to the same school or that you were both camp counselors in Maine. The strongest connections often coming from sharing personal, not professional interests.
  4. Know your value: Research indicates that mentoring and helping others can not only retain employees, but can lead to higher levels of personal satisfaction and meaning.[iv] You have just as much to offer in this relationship as they do.
  5. Start with small, easy to answer questions: Don’t propose on the first date! When initially reaching out to an experienced professional, ask them a question that can be answered in 5-minutes or less.  When they respond, thank them and then follow-up on their suggestion.  If they continue to respond, then consider requesting a lunch or coffee meeting where you can continue to grow the relationship.
  6. Be patient: One of the benefits of long-term networking is that you get to develop relationships with experienced, successful professionals; however, these professionals can also be very busy.
Here’s an example of an email I sent to an industry leader, made anonymous to prevent being creepy.
Subject: Compliment/Fan Mail
Rockstar Professional,
My name is Lindsey Day and I am a Career Advisor at Anonymous University (AU).
I’m writing to relay a compliment to you.  I was recently asked how I wanted to grow as a leader and I cited you as an example.  In your one year here, I have been impressed with your leadership, specifically your ability to be a calm, approachable and even vulnerable leader. When I’ve seen you speak, you have the ability to make any conversation feel like a one-on-one conversation and you are able to remain non-defensive and open even when others are asking you tough questions. This is a quality I hope to cultivate in myself as I grow in my career.
We are so very lucky to have you at AU.
Lindsey Day
I meant what I wrote from the bottom of my heart. It took this leader one week to respond to me. Here’s her direct response:
“What a thoughtful and generous note! I am sorry to be delayed in responding but I have been hiking and some places I have hiked to lacked cell coverage!
Let’s check in when school starts and see how we might have a further conversation on this. And I’d love to hear about your work!”
Next Steps:
At the Career Center, we’re focused on helping you develop the skills you need to start or grow your professional network.
Consider the following next steps to get started:
  • Attend one of our upcoming workshops led by DU’s team of job search and career coach experts:
    • Networking Basics, May 3rd
    • Advanced LinkedIn, May 4th
    • Advanced LinkedIn, May 5th
  • Reach out to DU alumni or your fellow classmates by registering for Pioneer Connect or joining the DU Alumni LinkedIn group. PS- these groups are open to students and alumni.
  • Make an appointment to meet with your Career Advisor by calling 303-871-2150 to discuss your personalized networking plan.