What is Networking?
Merriam Webster defines it as “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business”. To give a technical analogy, if everyone in the world is a node, and if person X knows person Y, then draw an arc from node X to node Y for every X and Y. This is a dynamic network where nodes are added and subtracted. Also, arcs are added and subtracted even without adding or subtracting nodes. As an individual, our aim in networking would be to: (a) identify newer nodes to directly connect to; (b) get newer arcs coming to us from nodes; (c) make sure the arcs we already have do not disappear. Here, being 2 degrees away (i.e. X to Y to Z, but not directly X to Z) may not count. We also need to use node weights (not all our contacts may be equally weighted from a professional standpoint) and arc weights (not all our relationships may be equally solid).
Okay, we used some technical jargon with the hope that people in the field may understand it better. Given the proliferation of social networks in people’s lives, hopefully the jargon is not too limiting. But, not to worry if you are not familiar with network representations. The basic idea is that networking as a professional means getting to develop strong professional contacts and maintain the relationships we already have. Generally, across one’s career the number of immediately connected nodes increases with time. That is why you see many people upon retirement take up consulting positions, as they have the killer combination of knowledge and contacts. Having said that, the main audience for this article are people that recently became professionals. Some of them do not realize how important networking is and how to go about networking. However, toward the end we will add something for company leaders.
In our younger years things were more-or-less merit based. If we played excellent basketball, we might be in our school team. Likewise, students that do well in school end up going to good colleges. When everyone knows everyone in a school environment, it is not hard to imagine getting selected for things they are good at. However, at many work places, most people we report to do not know what we do on a daily basis, and their boss has no hope of knowing what we do. So when it comes to assigning projects, we may not get the projects that are ideal for our skills. Much worse is when it comes time for things like promotion, some even say it is not what you know but who you know that matters for promotion. Further, if we get unfortunately laid off, then it is our networks that can help. Also, our networks can help with opportunities that are not widely advertised.
Now, everything said above is very rare-event focused. On a day-to-day basis our networks are our sources of information and knowledge. We learn from our networks about new trends in our profession , understand how to do stuff, find out what is going on in the company, and even be mentors or champions of our work. Most importantly, these are the people with whom we could have a good time at work and have a reason to be in the office daily, go to happy hours, baby showers, and lunch meetings. Having a solid set of work-related friends (who are also part of this network) improves our mental well being. Although it appears like networking is a self-fulfilling prophecy, this is actually a win-win for everyone. A network relationship is give and take, sometimes you pay it forward and the hence name is network and not vortex.
Am I Capable of Networking?
You may be for networking but wonder if networking is for you. In other words, we may think that we are not cut out for networking. First of all networking is not schmoozing, think of it as making friends. Second, you do not have to be an extrovert to network. In fact, networking can comfortably be done one-on-one which would easily work for introverts. Third, for various reasons such as having a stutter, being a non-native speaker, etc., we may not feel confident to network. While those are understandable, efforts can be made to mitigate them. As we saw earlier, networking is important and that is one way to earn trust. In fact, the main reason why merit is necessary but not sufficient in the professional world is because one has not garnered enough trust with just merit. Usually if someone champions your cause, the other party would be more trusting.
How do I Network?
In this day and age with a lot of working-from-home situations, opportunity to network even with our own colleagues may be difficult. People are busy and do not have time to chit-chat. Let us start with networking among our immediate co-workers. Whether it is online or in person, if there is a meeting, happy hour invitation, or a holiday party, do show up. And show up early. Not only do early birds get the proverbial worm, but in the early part of meetings people usually spend some time socializing. Do not miss out on those. When people are looking for volunteers, sign up. Meeting peers in our organization is not hard. Next stage is to network with one or more levels up. Do not feel shy to schedule a one-on-one with your supervisors and their supervisors. If you feel you cannot think of questions impromptu, take a list with you to the meeting.
It is also important to network outside your organization. These are the people you do not want to lose connections. The easiest group to start with are your classmates from school and college. Stay in touch with anyone and everyone you interacted with. Even if you do not initiate conversations, make sure to respond when people reach out. Networking is also about creating opportunities. One way is to join local chapters of professional societies where opportunities knock. LinkedIn in particular is ideal for work-related opportunities (liking a post does not go as far as adding a comment). Contributing is always a good way to network. Finally, you want to be sure when you network your accomplishments are shared. Some people find it comfortable to express, while others need a champion. If you are aiming for the latter, network to find the champion soon.
What Could Leadership Do?
It is important for leaders to understand that they could make the environment conducive for networking. This could be opportunities to speak or present for which subordinates could sign up. Organizing social events in the office really helps. Having people do quick 1-minute introductions (everyone, not just the newbies) in meetings. It would be necessary for leaders to say they are open to one-on-one meetings and encourage people to take advantage of them. Another aspect is for leaders to create opportunities to ask questions. If people are not raising their hands, it would not be a bad idea to go around asking what each person has to say. Leaders must make a deliberate attempt to facilitate networking. This would boost morale, increase engagement, improve productivity, and also retention.