There. I said it.
But it’s not so much that networking itself is bad – it’s that most of us are doing it wrong. Networking events all seem to come down to handing out or collecting as many business cards as possible. ‘Master networkers’ grow their networks on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to thousands of people. Dunbar’s number be damned.
Networking has become a verb – something it should never have been in the first place.
And here’s the thing – not only is networking not much fun, but it accomplishes very little.
There’s a better way.
When I first got out of college, I worked as an actor in Los Angeles for a number of years. When you arrive in L.A. it’s beaten into your head, almost like a mantra: “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
So you’re supposed to network. Every working actor knows the rules – never leave the house without a change of clothes (for a last-minute audition); always have headshots, postcards, and business cards on hand; and most importantly, always find ways to get face-time with people who can help you.
There are enough actors in L.A. that the whole town seems geared towards networking. There are constant networking events, happy hours, and casting director workshops. Every week, someone else writes another article on networking. There’s even a cottage networking events industry that charges lots of money to let you meet people. All of whom can supposedly help your career.
When I first got to L.A., I took all the advice to heart. I followed all the rules – went to networking events, kept my cards/headshots on hand, and constantly looked for ways to get my face in front of the all-important casting directors. I met tons of people in the film industry, exchanged tons of business cards, and added contacts to my Handspring Treo like it was going out of style.
…and it didn’t accomplish anything. I still wasn’t getting calls for auditions, I still wasn’t getting meetings with the people I needed to see. And I felt a whole lot like this guy:
After a small time of running in that rat race, I put the business cards down and stopped actively networking. I started going out not to be competitive, but just to meet interesting people. I reached out to a director I had worked with in the past and invited him to coffee – we spent the whole time discussing contemporary literature (something we both studied in college), not mentioning the industry once.
He wound up putting me in his next movie. But we’ll talk more about that at the end.
The problem wasn’t necessarily with networking – but with how I was doing it.
I was making networking the goal, rather than building solid relationships.
I don’t think I’m alone in making that mistake.
In my experience, when people talk about networking, they talk about it with a goal in mind. Usually it’s about making connections to people who can help you. Sometimes it’s about the vague “growing my network.”
In other words, networking is all about “what can you do for me?” And that, frankly, sucks.
Think about it – would you want to connect to someone you’d just met whose sole interest was “how can you help me?” Would you add their business card to your address book? Would you want to help them?
And yet that’s the approach countless people take. And don’t get very far – besides having lots of contacts, Twitter followers, and LinkedIn connections.
A Better Approach
You’ve probably heard us say it before: at FullContact, we’re all about being awesome with people. We also believe that your network is your net worth. But a network should not be measured on quantity alone – it should be measured more on quality than quantity.
In my experience, rather than trying to collect 50,000 business cards, it’s more important to maximize your connection to the people you already know. (Does that mean meeting new people isn’t important? No. It just means that when you go to events where you meet new people, you should stop looking for someone to help you. You should shift your approach and your overall goals.)
Here are a few ways to stop networking and start building real connections anytime you have the opportunity to meet new people:
1) Be real.
Forget about going out with an agenda, or a goal. Go out to simply meet people. (NOTE: This is in drastic contrast to the advice from most “How to be a networking expert” books).
By shifting your priorities to be less about the end goal – and more about finding people with whom you share things in common – you’ll create more genuine relationships (and not go home feeling bad if you don’t meet anyone who can help your career take the next step).
Speaking of careers…
2) Work, schmurk.
When you meet someone new, stop asking what they do for a living. Seriously.
The person may have the same career as you. They may be an ideal customer for your company. But unless they’re in a very small minority, that’s not what they’re passionate about.
If you want to really connect with people, find out what drives them – what they’re passionate about. Or find other things you have in common.
Gary Vaynerchuk said it very well in his book, “The Thank You Economy”:
“When given the choice, people will always spend their time around people they like. When it’s expedient and practical, they’d also rather do business with and buy stuff from people they like.”
So make an effort to not talk about work. If it comes up naturally, that’s fine. But keep yourself from using it as an easy icebreaker – because it sets you off on the wrong foot almost immediately.
3) Take fewer business cards.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? But remember – you’re focusing on quality over quantity.
So the next event you go to, try taking only 2-3 business cards. Start talking to people, and focus on enjoying the conversation. Exchange cards with people you find interesting – not just the ones who have something they can help you with.
If you run out of cards and someone else needs to connect with you, great. They can give you their card, and you can follow up later. If you come home with 3 cards still in your pocket, also great. That just means you didn’t connect with anyone enough to add them to your network – which isn’t a bad thing.
4) Aid before ask.
Of all the tips, this may be the most important.
I’ve already said that too many people think “networking” means finding people who can help them. So flip that idea on its head. When meeting new people, rather than looking for ways they can help you level up, think about ways you can help them get to where they want to go.
Adopting a “help first” mentality is rewarding both in the short run and the long run. It always feels good to be able to help someone out. And ultimately, should you ever need something down the road, they’ll remember to reciprocate.
5) Stay in touch
It seems like a no-brainer – but this is where so many people lose sight of the purpose of a network. Make sure to keep in touch with your contacts. Relationships need cultivating.
Make notes about your contacts, so you remember where you met them, what they’re into, etc. Fill in the ‘Spouse’ and ‘Children’ fields, so you can jog your memory before the next meeting. Use a service like FullContact to sync all your info across all your devices and Gmail accounts, so you have it when you come back into contact with them.
Again, it all comes down to motivation. None of the above advice is results-oriented – it’s just about building meaningful relationships and being awesome with people.
Back to Los Angeles…
There are lots of reasons why Los Angeles has a reputation as a self-centered town. A big part of it involves the dominance of the entertainment industry, and the odd way that industry works. And a big part of that is a relentless focus on networking with people who can help you.
At some point, I was hanging out at a friend’s Karate Kid party on the beach (long story, but it involved bonfires & everything). I met an interesting guy who shared my love of bad movies. (He also failed as miserably as me at doing a crane kick on a post). We traded numbers, & later met up with our girlfriends to go to a screening of Troll 2.
I soon learned he was a producer for a well-known network show, when he brought me in for an audition, out of the blue.
That same scenario (minus the failed Karate Kid crane kick) played out countless times over my acting career. It led to tons of opportunities I never would have had.
More importantly, it led to good friends I never would have connected with – some of whom helped me, and some of whom I helped.
None of that would have happened had I approached them with a ‘What can you do for me?’ mentality.
The big lesson I learned is no big secret – it’s just hard to learn in a society obsessed with networking. It’s pretty simple: stop thinking of networking as a verb, and start thinking of building meaningful relationships with the people you find interesting. Focus on that – not growing your network – and the results will follow.