Within a week’s time a while back, I had occasion to read Learn to Love Networking (Harvard Business Review) and then attend an event that the magazine did that followed from the article, featuring one of the writers of it. The article hit on several great points, and the event picked up from that, with a lot of good thoughts and questions from the packed house in attendance in addition to Francesca Gino expanding on it. I could identify with the difficulty of networking from experience, and I suspect I am not alone.

During the event, Gino mentioned that a big problem is that many who are reluctant networkers are focused on the “take” part of the give and take that networking involves. We don’t come in thinking about what we can offer to someone, or how we can help someone; we come in thinking about the benefit(s) we can derive.

There’s a good explanation for this, I believe.

We’ve all seen people who think networking is simply about landing the next job, and boils down to finding someone, telling them to submit their resume to the manager for them, and that’s the extent of their interaction. And most of us know that is no way to network, that if we were the unlucky person who met someone like that we wouldn’t even think about passing on that resume. As Gino noted in the event, we are really trying to build relationships – calling it “networking” almost seems a misnomer of sorts. Indeed, I often describe my own networking in exactly those words. The “dream” scenario noted earlier is really more of a transactional “relationship”, and the kind that I would imagine rarely develops beyond the initial contact.

I think a couple of key reasons for this are relatively straightforward. One is that networking doesn’t come naturally to many, but that could explain more than this and as such doesn’t feel like it accounts for much. More importantly, many of us learn about networking when we’re unemployed – at a time when we are vulnerable for this and thus learning to do it properly will be more difficult than it already is.

That this doesn’t come naturally to many is fairly self-explanatory and needs little expansion. This is true of any talent – it comes naturally to a few, while for most it takes work to develop it, whether it’s hitting a baseball, writing software, influencing people or networking. I know this because networking certainly didn’t come naturally to me at first; I freely admit to having humble beginnings in this respect. It has taken many years and networking events over that time to get to where I am.

When we’re out of work, many of us go into some form of outplacement assistance to help us land our next job, especially earlier in our careers. We learn about what to do with our resumes, cover letters, interviewing – all the things we might have learned about before. Then, we are told that networking is how most people land new jobs – and that’s something new for many of us. We learn – sometimes the hard way – that it is an art, not a science, and for those who are not very outgoing or extroverted, this might seem intimidating at first. Not only must we land a new job, but to get there, we have to learn and/or get better at something in order to get there first.

More importantly, though, this is a tough position to be in for a couple of reasons. One is that the desired end result – landing a new job – is foremost in our minds. It is easy to get a bit of tunnel vision and focus on that while networking, thus not thinking about the reality that we have to pay it forward and think about what we have to offer. The other reason is that at a time when we’re out of work, it is easy to wonder: what, exactly, do I have to offer to help someone?

We must remember that no matter our employment status, we can offer value to others. We need not offer value to someone in the form of a connection to get a job, even though that is never a bad thing. There are many ways in which one may offer value to other people. Of course, that is our central message to any prospective employer, but we have to remember that at all times. In fact, thinking about how we can provide value to others is a great way to keep a job seeker on track as it turns into some great practice, seeing as how every interaction with a prospective employer must be devoted to showing that we bring a lot of value to them.

Networking is so important that it is not only best done while employed, but also best learned before we really need it the most – or when we think we need it the most. After all, in some of our jobs, networking is very important, such as in a sales job, where relationships are paramount. Perhaps if we had the chance to learn it when we didn’t need to urgently get something like a job, we might come to understand it better – especially the “give” part – and ultimately come to like it more.

To be sure, this would not be a panacea. Plenty of people are just naturally selfish, and plenty of people are naturally scorekeepers (which is another no-no in networking). Plenty more are not reserved, but shy, and that hampers them. If all of us learned about networking at a less vulnerable point in our lives, we would not magically have a world full of great networkers with none of the bad ones we have all come across. Networking would not then magically become a little easier.

But it might help a good deal.

And it might help more people do what the article’s title encourages us to do.

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