Friday, May 4, 2018

Networking for Actual Human Beings

Thanks to my friend Brian Stoffers, Global President, Debt and Structured Finance at CBRE (and The Wall Street Journal) for this very interesting read. Not everyone is comfortable with networking.  In fact, I believe it's an over-used term.  However, many times, the start of a relationship begins at a networking event or during the official (or unofficial) networking time at an industry event.  The most important part of meeting someone for the first time, if you determine it's someone you want to stay in touch with, is to follow up with them and then stay in touch, in a meaningful way.  

The research is clear: People don’t mix at mixers, and don’t feel good about trying. But there are better ways to make meaningful connections

A significant body of research demonstrates that networking—making and strengthening connections to others—is vitally important for professional success. But there’s a problem: Most of us hate doing it. We dread the awkward small talk with strangers at a noisy cocktail party, the pressure to deliver our “elevator pitch” and to “work the room. “There are better ways to make these important connections, but it has to start with a clear understanding of what’s wrong with the usual mode of corporate networking and why we dislike it so much.

The fact is, such activities strike many of us as insincere and manipulative, even slightly unethical. A 2014 study published in Administrative Science Quarterly found that just thinking about job related networking made most people “feel dirty.” The researchers asked 306 adults to remember a time when they had made a professional contact, either for career advancement or for personal reasons. Both groups were then asked to do a word-completion task that is used to gauge subconscious feelings. Those who recalled a contact intended to advance their careers were significantly more likely to have subconscious thoughts of feeling morally tainted. The researchers got similar results when they tested memories of online networking.

One study found that just thinking about job-related networking made most people “feel dirty. “One result of this revulsion is that most of us don’t actually make many new contacts at networking events. In a widely discussed experiment, two professors at Columbia Business School held a gathering in 2007 for some 100 students in the executive M.B.A. program, all of them outfitted with electronic tags to track with whom they interacted and for how long. Even though almost all of the executives said that they wanted to attend such events to build new business ties, it turned out that they spent, on average; around half their time in conversation with people they already knew. As the study’s authors put it, people just don’t mix at mixers.

But networking doesn’t have to follow these stale formulas. In fact, it’s more likely to succeed in making meaningful connections if the activity isn’t so relentlessly focused on acquiring new business contacts. Herewith some tips: Spend more time reconnecting with friends than meeting new people. Since most of us are more likely to engage with people we already know than with strangers at networking events, skip such gatherings altogether and invest that time in renewing older contacts.

A wealth of research suggests that your less cultivated business acquaintances, or “weak ties,” have more information, opportunities and potential introductions to share with you than either your close contacts or total strangers. Seek out shared activities instead of unstructured events. The Columbia study suggests that we don’t really make good use of freewheeling social events with strangers. A productive alternative is to focus on an activity. The entrepreneur and author Jon Levy has built a strong network by hosting dinner parties with a twist: When guests arrive, they’re told not to share their names and occupations and are given assignments for preparing the group’s dinner.

Conference organizer Jayson Gaignard takes a similar approach with activities such as mountain biking or jeep tours. Ask better questions. If you’re stuck attending a traditional networking event, try to go beyond the standard opener of “what do you do?” when you encounter strangers. Instead ask questions such as “What excites you right now” or “What are you looking forward to?” Or else give them a chance to talk about themselves: “What’s the most important thing I should know about you?” Or be more playful, “Who’s your favorite superhero? “What makes most networking so unpleasant is the feeling that it’s all instrumental, a way for us to use other people to get ahead. So instead try a better approach: greet all those strangers as actual human beings.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Burkus’s new book, “Friend of a Friend: Understanding The Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Career.”

Fletcher Park, Fletcher, NC

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