Networking is one of the most useful tools available to you as someone seeking to accomplish important and unique goals.  Networking opens up new opportunities.  Networking cuts through red tape.  Networking gives you more control over your time and your destiny.  How many other singular things have this much power to help you out?

Save one summer internship, every meaningful job I have gotten has been because of networking.

Networking suffers a long and battered history of being misused and misunderstood.  A lot of people hear the word “networking”, and automatically think it means trying to go out and meet a whole bunch of people for the purpose of using them to accomplish a goal.  Given the way that many people network, maybe this is a deserved misunderstanding.

Many that try to network are usually taught to do so through the usual list memorization process, starting with what exact words to say upon meeting someone, all the way to memorizing transitions into giving them your resume or exchanging business cards. Of course, it’s important to know and understand interpersonal etiquette in your respective fields.  The point here is that the real gem is understanding how networking is done, rather than trying to memorize what to do.

We need to surmise a true and useful definition of networking, and understand how it actually helps us accomplish our goals.  I would define networking as this:

Networking is the systematic act of building a diverse group of relationships based on a foundation of mutual benefit and interest, and using those relationships when needed to accomplish your goals.

Let’s break it down:

  • Systematic

In my articles about personal branding, I argued that personal branding must be an ongoing effort that is not done only when you feel like you need something.  The exact same logic (and reasoning for it) goes with networking.  By developing your network of people now rather than when you “think you need it”, you 1.) are able to better hedge when something does go wrong (that is, you can use your already-existing network to your advantage), and 2.) you are able to constantly be aware of–and party to–new opportunities.  Opportunities don’t only appear when  you are looking for them: they’re all around us all of the time.

  • Diverse

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they network is that they just meet a bunch of the same people over and over again.  I think this is for two reasons: one is that people don’t want to leave their comfort zones, and since they are undertaking an activity that inherently requires us to go outside of our comfort zone, they subconsciously try to stay as close to it as possible.  So if you are a marketing executive and go to meet more marketing executives, there’s a level of mutual comfort and understanding that wouldn’t be there if you were to go meet someone who works in corporate finance.  Another reason is that people just don’t think about it, and have the “hard work is good work” mentality (in other words, they don’t understand the True value of hard work).

Most networking events I have been invited to are networking evens for other accountants or accounting students.  When I go, I  just continue to meet more and more accountants.  If my real goal is to start a business, what good will it do me to focus all of my efforts on meeting more of the same category of person, when the reality is that I need all kinds of people to help me in my endeavor (such as people in marketing, sales, operations, and management)?

So there is an inherent value in knowing people from all different kinds of industry, background and specialty.  This means that a good networking plan will involve you understanding the different types of people that can help you with your goals, and seeking to meet them.  I would argue it is especially important to put forth active effort to meet people outside of your specific sphere of expertise, since it is always easy to meet those right around you, but more difficult and time consuming to meet those that are not.

  • Relationships

The relationships component is the part where most people have it goofed up, and see networking as an attempt to meet others for purposes of using them to accomplish a goal.   People think “I got one referral from the 100 e-mails I sent out, and now this person going to be my golden key to getting what I want”.  But what makes you think they want to help you?  Though many people naively approach networking in this manner, the truth is that it is basically destined not to work, especially in the long-term. Just think about your own nature to understand why.

We are inspired to act on the behalf of others based upon relationships.  Would you be more inclined to take a Sunday afternoon to help your best friend move into his new apartment, or to give the same amount of effort and consideration to an acquaintance you met at the bar Saturday night?  The converse of this also true: people are inspired not to help you if they have no relationship with you.  Come to think of it, wouldn’t you actually be kind of mad that the guy you met last night wants your help moving things?  So rather than the outcome being neutral,  it is actually causes people to form negative opinions.

Though I don’t doubt many great sociologists have devoted their lives to studying why this is, I will posit a simple hypothesis that will suffice for the purpose of this conversation: we want to be able to rely on others when we are in need, and have a support network already set up.  So by constructing relationships, we build ourselves a support network of people that can help us out.  If that person is not part of our relationships, and as such we can’t rely on them, why should we care about helping them out?

I’m not saying that there’s never a time and a place to ask people for help with whom you don’t have a solid relationship.  The purpose here is to make sure you understand the efficacy of your networking efforts.  In sales, it’s often said that it takes ten times more effort to find a new customer than to keep an existing one.  The same logic applies to networking: it’s easier to rely on and use your pre-existing network than to try to reinvent the wheel (or web, in this case) whenever you need something.

The other important note is that: when you have relationships with people, they become not just your connections, but also your advocates.  They don’t just introduce you to someone else: they actively try to help you succeed!  This has worked well for me: I have seen e-mails where people have introduced me to others as a “smart young man” or a “driven and aspiring entrepreneur”.  They could have just said “Here’s some guy that wants to meet you”.  But since I put in the extra effort to build relationships, I not only got the connection, but got an endorsement.

Would you rather an e-mail forward, or a glowing endorsement?  If you want the endorsement, the relationship has to come first.

You rightly ask: “I understand the concept: but how do I actually develop the relationship?”  I think that undertaking networking as something that should inherently be mutually beneficial is the best–and easiest way–to make that happen.

  • Mutual benefit.

The bedrock of a successful relationship developed through networking is mutual benefit.   In other words, there is something in it for you and for the other person.  This is the key essence of relationships as discussed in the prior bullet point.  If you want to be able to rely on others, let them be able to rely on you.

I don’t think this means that you should try to position yourself as being available to everyone’s beck and call at all times.  The point is to encourage you to think about what your value is to the other person, and how you can deliver that value to them.  And note that the value doesn’t necessarily have to be something tangible you do for or give to the other person.  Let me give you an example:

When I lived in Shanghai, I became good friends with one of our professors.  He helped me tremendously with my career endeavors, including writing a letter of recommendation for law school, and introducing me to partners and managers at Big 4 firms in Shanghai.  At first, I worried that I was using too much of his time, since I had visited his office on several occasions, and he had sent out about a dozen e-mails and requests on my behalf.  Then I realized that his motivation for helping me was because I provided him with an intangible value: he was simply impressed that, out of the 30 students in our class, I was the only one that had taken the time to go to his office and get to know him.  Furthermore, he saw that I was a motivated and persistent student, and I think he saw “a little bit of himself” (thinking back to when he started his career) in me.

But when he asked for some tangible value in return, I was quick to respond.  I helped him work on his campaign materials for when he ran for chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.  He even “paid me back” for that by writing me a glowing recommendation of my work on the campaign.  I am glad to say that, even years after my study abroad program, we still maintain an excellent relationship, and speak with each other over e-mail every few months.

The point here is that, when you network, you are in it for the long term.  You are willing to forge long-term relationships with others in order to further your own goals, and help others form theirs.  Consider the most successful relationships in your own life: wouldn’t you say that the ones based on long-term mutual benefits are the ones that are the most solid and the most reliable?  Apply the same logic to networking!

Read the next article, Relentless networking (part 2: in action) to see how to put these ideas to work for you.