Since the Internet boom of the mid 1990s, there has been an explosion of books and articles about networking due to its increasing importance in achieving success in the 20th century jobscape. While many of these articles seek to clarify the true meaning of networking, some actually muddy up the waters even further. What’s a novice networker to do?
Let’s put networking squarely in the crosshairs and get a good look at its true meaning. First of all, the entire purpose of networking is to build connections with others based on areas of mutual interest. As routine conversation and interaction continue over time, connections generally morph into relationships — as long as both parties view them as being solidly grounded in trust and reciprocity.
There are those who claim they do not know how to network. Let me assure you: If you can pose the question "How can I help you?" to someone and your offer is straight from the heart, you DO know how to network. The reason is simple: The desire to help others achieve their goals is at the heart of all productive networking. As you become recognized as a person who seeks to help others (while benefitting from help they offer you), you‘ve branded yourself as an individual of great value … the kind of person that anyone would love to have as part of their own "trusted network."
As many new networkers discover, a great deal of network-building begins with something as simple as "small talk." You meet someone, strike up a conversation, and within a few short minutes discover that you both share some common interest, e.g., football, classical music, rock climbing … whatever. Think of "small talk" as the initial "spark" that has the capacity to ignite a genuinely worthwhile relationship.
As experienced networkers already know, there are some unspoken ground rules about networking. If you approach a budding relationship in terms of what you can get out of it, it‘s unlikely the relationship will last long. A "me, first" attitude will poison almost any relationship on which it‘s based.
Put another way, you need to avoid SELLING (i.e., prematurely marketing yourself, your products or services PRIOR to establishing a solid relationship with someone). People who tend to forget this bit of networking protocol are often referred to as "networking jerks." And that‘s a label you clearly want to avoid at all costs!
As healthy relationships grow and mature, good networking techniques now include the ability to ask for things you may need from your network of trusted contacts. As disciplined as you were in avoiding this in the early stages of a relationship, you must now gain the confidence that others know you well enough and respect you highly enough that they will not be surprised or offended if you approach them for help. In short: You need to be comfortable in ASKING — appropriately, of course — within a stable, mature relationship.
To really gain an understanding of networking, it‘s helpful to think of it in terms of a gardening metaphor. In gardening, there is a principle that says "Seed, Feed, and Weed." First you plant the seeds, and then you nurture those seeds with great care and attention. And from time to time, you may need to "prune out" certain shoots that are not contributing to the overall health of the garden.
There‘s really no need to explain the metaphor with regard to networking: it‘s practically self-evident. But when you do find it necessary to "weed" certain contacts from your network, don‘t view this as a personal failure; it‘s inevitable that in any group of new relationships, a certain percentage of them will not develop as planned, hoped, or predicted. That‘s the law of averages. Just remember that leaving the defective relationships in your network exposes you to some significant risk if you should ever decide to share your network of trusted contacts with others.
In the end, networking is what you make of it. Put a lot of effort in and you can be assured of developing a strong and fruitful network.
About the Author
President, Rod Colon Consulting, LLC
Founder, Empowering Today's Professionals (ETP)
Author of the ETP Network’s first book, Win the Race for 21st For Century Jobs