The Art (and Science) of Networking – PEN Apr 2018

Ok – quick show of hands: who reading this loves to network?  Seriously, vote here to indicate your fondness of professional networking; you can see others’ votes here (then come back and read the rest of the article!).


While some people (mainly extroverts) thrive on networking, I’m guessing most of you really don’t like to do it – it’s uncomfortable; it can be awkward talking to someone you really don’t know; some might even think it borders on being exploitative or fake – an activity that usually doesn’t feel genuine or authentic.


But in today’s professional world, networking is essential.  According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, it “leads to more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority.  Building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction,” according to HBR research.


Regardless of your position on networking, research shows that it is an important professional skill.  And research also shows that if you have an aversion to networking, it can be overcome.  (By the way, keep reading: in the middle of this article, I’ll outline a very unique approach to networking that PEN will use at our PENworks conference in a couple of weeks.  We believe it may revolutionize how our members and guests – leaders and professionals in our network – connect with each other.  Read on!)

First, a quick definition of networking.  According to good ol’ Webster, networking is “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions – specifically, the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.”  Wikipedia has a similar take: networking “is a socioeconomic business activity by which businesspeople and entrepreneurs meet to form business relationships and to recognize, create, or act upon business opportunities, share information, and seek potential partners for ventures.”


Wikipedia goes on to say that networking has become a way that professionals build social capital (as in the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know!”).  After all, your professional network may be one of the biggest assets you have: your network can help you solve problems, explore ideas, identify best practices, advance learning and understanding, generate relationships, and advance careers.

So how do you improve your networking skills, particularly if you’re not all that fond of – or good at – networking in the first place?  That Harvard article offers four strategies.


1) Focus on Learning.  The HBR article says that “most people have a dominant motivational focus – what psychologists refer to as either a ‘promotion’ or a ‘prevention’ mindset.  Those in the former category think primarily about the growth, advancement, and accomplishments that networking can bring them, while those in the latter see it as something they are obligated to take part in for professional reasons.”  Promotion-focused people network because they want to – they view networking as fun, exciting, and stimulating and come into the activity with curiosity and an open mind.  In contrast, prevention-focused people view networking as a “necessary evil” – one that doesn’t feel all that genuine or natural, and consequently one that they opt not to engage in all that often.


Stanford research shows that you can shift your mindset on networking from prevention to promotion simply by training yourself to view the positive in networking.  Instead of viewing it as a chore – something that you have to do – instead, go into it with an open mind.  Tell yourself: “maybe this encounter will produce something interesting or of value.”  Concentrate on the positives and the possibilities – maybe I’ll learn something; maybe this will lead to a business relationship; maybe this will advance my career.  You can’t change yourself from an introvert into an extrovert, but you can change your mindset about networking.  And mindset is half the battle.


2) Identify Common Interests.  Successful networking produces win-wins: you gain something and so does the person with whom you’re networking.  Maybe not immediately at the same time, but over time networking should produce mutually beneficial outcomes.  And mutually beneficial outcomes usually are the result of finding interests, goals, and skills that are either aligned or harmonized.  Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University calls this the shared activity principle.  Uzzi states: “Potent networks are not forged through casual interactions, but through relatively high-stakes activities that connect you with diverse others.”


The HBR article claims that numerous studies in social psychology demonstrate that people establish the most collaborative and longest-lasting connections when they work together on tasks that require one another’s contributions (for more insights on the power of partnering, see my January 2018 article, 1+1=3 – The Power of Partnerships). The HBR authors state that this “task interdependence” can be one of the biggest sources of positive energy in professional relationships.
So this is what PEN is trying to do at our PENworks 2018 conference.  We are using a networking platform called Collaboration Ai to connect attendees with others that they NEED to meet, based on common interests and other variables.  Conference attendees will complete a short, 2-minute survey and then the software will produce seating arrangements for a couple of speaker-less meals, where we will have some seeded questions and volunteers who facilitate information sharing and dialogue.

Think about it: at a normal conference, you grab your food and coffee and wander into the ballroom, either trying to spot a colleague or someone “safe” you already know to sit down and have a conversation (either that, or you sit in the back, hoping not to be bothered so that you can catch up on emails – a legitimate strategy for all of our business schedules!).  While that’s fine, our intent is to try to bring people together who can advance each others’ learning, each others’ conference experience, and indeed each others’ careers and organizations!  If this works – and we’re really excited and hopeful to try it out! – we may start using this platform to connect PEN members to each other outside of conferences and events, in the spirit of systematic networking, learning, sharing, and collaborating.  After all “network” is in our brand!


When your networking is driven by shared interests, it will feel more authentic.


3) Think Broadly About What You Can Give.  Even if you don’t share an interest with someone, you can still find ways to create a win-win exchange.  In fact, sometimes diversity leads to even more powerful exchanges because the difference of perspectives leads to new insights.  The HBR article references the book Influence Without Authority (Allan Cohen and David Bradford), in which the authors note that most people “tend to think too narrowly about the resources they have that others might value.  They focus on tangible, task-related things such as money, social connections, technical support, and information, while ignoring less obvious assets such as gratitude, recognition, and enhanced reputation.”


HBR sums it up nicely: “When you think more about what you can give to others than what you can get from them, networking will seem less self-promotional and more selfless – and therefore more worthy of your time.”


4) Find a Higher Purpose.  According to the Harvard research, another factor that affects people’s interest in – and effectiveness at – networking is the primary purpose they have in mind when they set out to do it.  And if the purpose of your networking is bigger than just your own personal gain, you’re apt to be more motivated to network in the first place.  Think about it: any work activity becomes more appealing when it’s linked to a higher goal.  So if the goal of your networking is broad (like to improve your organization, to build meaningful relationships, to solve certain problems, or to help your customers, for example) rather than just personal (to advance my career), the networking itself will feel more authentic, more genuine, and will likely lead to more meaningful outcomes.


For most of us, networking is hard – it takes time, energy, and oftentimes feels awkward.  But networking is important for professional success – as individual leaders and professionals and for our organizations.  These four strategies from Harvard can help us overcome the natural aversion to networking, and maybe even cause us to get a little more excited about the possibilities that networking can offer!


Come test out the new approach to networking (we’re calling it “systematic serendipity!”) at PENworks 2018.  The conference is May 3-4 in the Twin Cities, and this year’s theme is Positivity. Optimism. Excellence.  Registration closes next week – consider attending for the great content/insights, the great networking, and the great positive energy!  More information here.


What comments do you have regarding strategies for successful networking?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!


Yours in Performance Excellence,


Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


Catalyst for Success Since 1987!


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