Excerpt from Taking The Work Out Of Networking
03 July 2019
Introduction Networking is more about farming than it is about hunting. — Ivan Misner [founder and chairman of the business networking organization BNI]
Networking is one of those things most of us think of as a chore — an unloved task to undertake when we need something: a new job, better career guidance, more education, or other useful information. As I was developing the idea of this book, virtually every person I mentioned it to said the same thing: “I hate networking. Anything to help me avoid it, or survive it, would be great.” When I asked friends on Twitter and Facebook what specifically they hate about having to network, the replies flew in: “Everyone’s trying to be something they’re not”, “The goal-driven artificiality of it", "Conversations had for the sake of achieving a goal, rather than for creating connection, feel fake”, “I hate having to have surface-level conversations with people who I will probably forget for the sole mutual purpose of trying to take advantage of the relationship for personal benefit.”
As a lifelong introvert, the idea of forcing an introduction, talking too much about myself, or even asking for a business card has always been anathema. I get anxious if my calendar gets crowded with meetings, calls, and other obligations requiring me to talk too much or be in a crowd. And yet, despite my own need for self-protection and solitude, I’ve ended up at age sixty-seven with a few thousand contacts across the world. I would never work a room, but I’m not afraid to initiate a conversation with virtually anyone. Over my long and varied career, my network of contacts has come to enrich my life every day. Friends and acquaintances (and the people they know, and so on) regularly come to me for ideas, support, connection, and introductions. And I do the same. Wherever you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, the need to network in order to develop new connections has never mattered more. A few proof points: • We change jobs a lot. Younger baby boomers hold nearly a dozen different jobs during their working years, and millennials are projected to hold even more (Bureau of Labor Statistics). • Job hopping starts young. New college grads today work at twice as many companies in their first five post-grad years than in earlier eras (LinkedIn). • We move a lot. People in the United States move more than eleven times in their lives (FiveThirtyEight.com). • More of us work for ourselves. There are nearly 41 million self-employed Americans aged twenty-one and up, and the trend is growing (MBO Partners, Nation1099. com).
For all of these reasons — job changes, freelance work, geographical moves — it’s become incumbent on almost all of us to make networking a regular practice. And as we move through our professional lives, we’re going to continue to need an ever-changing, ever-growing variety of people to call on. A contemporary definition of “networking” is to make an effort to meet and talk to a lot of people, especially in order to get information that can help you. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Nevertheless, people hate having to do it, but to lots of people, networking conjures up images of pressing a business card on everyone in sight as you make sure to collect an equal number. Other dreaded aspects of networking: having to meet strangers to get in line for a new job; needing the inside scoop on a new field or city; trying to game the hiring system to match your experience to an interesting role. It all seems phony, and baldly transactional. Plus, for all the time we spend avoiding networking, we think we have to get out there exactly when we feel most needy. When things seem at their worst (an impending layoff, dead-end role, intolerable work environment), we feel vulnerable — sometimes even desperate. Who could be their best under these circumstances? Of course, there are also people who don’t believe they need to network. After all, they say, their job is secure. (Until it isn’t.) And there are some who feel resigned to their current job because, frankly, they can’t imagine anything better, or feel they can’t afford, for any number of reasons (tenure, title downgrade, lower compensation, commuting logistics, and so on), to make a switch. A friend described to me the life-long conundrum of networking: “Traditionally one is raised to not discuss work in social situations, to not be self-important, not be self-promoting, not be opportunistic, not make use of one’s friends — and then, as a professional adult, one has to somehow integrate the need to market oneself.
The conflict never seems to feel any less awkward. For introverts, multiply that distaste and even fear about having to connect with strangers. No less a figure than Carl Jung has described an introvert as someone who needs solo time to recharge, who regains energy by spending time alone — whereas extroverts get a special charge by being in a crowd and having lots of human contact without seeming to need a break. Most of us are somewhere along the spectrum between the two. In my own experience, and from what I’ve heard from kindred spirits, we who tilt toward introversion are more at home with our thoughts than we are in a chattering crowd. The idea of having to elbow our way into a conversation or a noisy room is just about the worst chore imaginable. Before I head back out in the world, I need unscheduled time for my brain to wander and rejuvenate. You, too?
All of the negatives associated with networking can lead to some mighty magical thinking when we face a big job or career change, or even simply recognise the need to make a change. The fantasy is that we will hear directly about the perfect new role; our resume will make it to the top of the pile; our friend on the inside will help us cinch it. Or maybe the magical thinking is: we’re fine where we are, and there’s no need to do anything for a long time to come, if ever (because it’s too horrible to consider networking). Like I say, it’s magic! My Long and Nonstrategic Trip The fact, though, is that for many of us, making career and life moves is more a mix of fits and starts than it is a grand plan or a seamless upward trajectory. I offer myself as Exhibit #1, with as long and unplanned a career in Silicon Valley as one could have. By today’s standards, my career in tech began late: I was thirty-five in the mid-1980s when I got into the then-lively world of personal computer magazines. My longtime passion for writing and editing helped me to become a consumer tech journalist, a (reluctant) PR flack, and an editorial and project manager for startups and creative agencies. Not a straight path, in other words.
In 2000, Silicon Valley experienced a major economic downturn. I had joined an eighteen-person startup that year, an early e-commerce personal gift business called Violet.com. Four tumultuous months later, we turned off the lights for good; no second round of funding was forthcoming. I went on to an established creative agency that was opening a San Francisco office. That turned out to be bad timing (downturns don’t lead to clients), and before long the firm decamped to its LA office — without me. By the end of the year, there were very few jobs to pursue, and not much contract work. No one was hiring. Over the next fifteen months or so I struggled with not enough work or money. I started an informal support group for a few friends in the same boat. We met weekly to cheer each other on and share leads. I reached out to lots of contacts to see if they might need writing help. One of these calls was to a friend I’d worked with twice before, who had recently taken a job at a startup called Google. I asked if she needed any writing help; she told me they just hired a marketing writer but promised to keep me in mind. A couple of months later, she called back. It seemed work was piling up. Would I come in and meet the team? She stressed that she couldn’t hire me directly; others would have to like my work (and me). I must have been a port in a storm, because at that very first meeting they asked me to jump in, which I did eagerly, working from home. Within a couple of weeks, it was clear that I should spend more time in the office to get face time with the team. I began the daily seventy-mile-round-trip commute to Google HQ. Once I became a regular fixture, I raised my hand for every assignment. I wanted to be seen as indispensable as possible, because I could see Google was somewhere I’d like to be. Not a big partier by nature, I even hosted cocktail gatherings at my flat for the team — the team I wasn’t yet on. My goal was to become as familiar as the bean bag seating around the office so people would know they could rely on me, and that I was suitably Googley. It took fifteen months for all the forces to converge for me to be hired into a full-time role as senior editor (a title I made up, by the way). I then remained at Google for eight more wonderful and life-changing years.
(Read interview: Perspectives on networking).