Based on conversations I’ve been having lately with a range of people, networking can feel really tricky. On the one hand, we all have business objectives – selling projects, or sourcing talent, or identifying partners. But on the other hand, most smart people understand there is value in taking a more zen approach to networking, doing it without trying to meet specific goals. But how is that value realized?
I think it’s useful to be a bit more explicit about the benefits of networking where there isn’t (yet) a concrete expected business outcome:
- Life is long – You never know when someone you didn’t think you had real interests in common with will make a change that means you can really do something together – or when you might.
- The world is small – I recently sat down with someone I hadn’t seen for a decade – and didn’t know very well back then, either – and we realized that we had a large number of surprisingly close contacts. He used to work with someone who had hired me, for instance. We are already more closely connected than we’d realized. (LinkedIn, your algorithm should have tried to connect us a long time ago! What’s up?)
- People are surprising – I’m often amazed at who someone might put me in touch with; people can be very generous with their contacts and their time. It can also be illuminating to hear what people actually do, which isn’t necessarily well-represented by their company or their title. Last week I had the most fascinating conversation with someone where he knew what we had in common and why we should talk, but I certainly didn’t – at least when we started. But by the end of the conversation, I understood very well how we might build on the connection.
- Ideas get generated – Whether it’s an old buddy or a sympatico new acquaintance, an open-ended conversation can lead to some great thinking; ideas we explore while we’re talking, or incorporating another perspective into something I’m doing on my own.
- You may learn something about yourself: Are you finding it more interesting to network with people who work in a certain field or function? Maybe that’s something you should be listening to. Can you tweak your own work to bring you closer to either being or working with that kind of person?
Time is precious, so of course it’s useful to go in with at least a guess as to what value each of us might get from the conversation. And it’s critical to have a sense of how networking in the long run supports our business or career objectives, if only to know when we’re spending too much time on it – or not enough. Neither of these elements is inconsistent with the notion that networking in an open-minded, loose fashion can lead to tangible benefits.
Always happy to discuss any of this over a coffee, naturally…