My perspective on networking when I was working a salaried 9-to-5 was likely similar to most folks:
- I don't have time.
- I am doing just fine on my own.
- What's the benefit to me?
When my career took a sudden and unexpected turn and I left said job, I realized my mistake with heavy regret. The understanding of what genuine networking consists of and where I had failed came in waves.
1. I quietly shined in the background.
I missed hundreds of relationship opportunities where I shined, but didn't connect. I rarely introduced myself to the key players in my industry or shared what I was working on. I sat at the table, listened, and performed quietly within my organization. I invested in my boss's approval and the relationships contained within a single company because I didn't plan on leaving and immaturely believed I could get things done best on my own. When I did network, I did so on behalf of my company, never connecting as an individual.
2. I saw networking as rubbing shoulders at events.
I held a naive view of networking as scheduled events where I could introduce myself to new people. This created so many barriers to genuine relationships. First, I didn't "have time" to attend events like this. Second, when I did prioritize an event, I didn't know how to take advantage of introductions. I told them what I did, they told me what they did, we swapped business cards. Once in awhile a relationship would form because the stars aligned at the right time with their needs and mine, but it was always a short-lived surface connection that died off when our mutual interests went in different directions.
3. I was self-centered and opportunities looked like work.
I was genuinely very busy at my job (due to hoarding the work in exchange for control). So, when I came across opportunities to volunteer, advise, or otherwise share space with other professionals, I saw them as tasks that simply added to my overwhelming to-do list. Why should I share my expertise with others? Why should I volunteer my time when my time is in such short supply? I certainly never went looking for this additional "work", let alone responded appropriately when it came looking for me. I stubbornly figured challenges out on my own to the extent that when I reached out to an organization with a successful model for a project I was leading, I was motivated to do so because it would look good on funding requests.
4. I thought well-connected people were born that way.
To me, the popular saying, "it's all who you know" was said sarcastically under your breath after congratulating a snob on their unearned promotion. Their wealthy, well-connected parents obviously pulled strings with their golf buddies to get little Johnny that CEO title at 22. While this may be true at times, nepotism is totally separate from networking. I failed to realize that I too could "know people" and move to the top of the list for exciting opportunities, even after discovering that if I hired someone I knew, I always got better results. Hello, McFly?
I was fortunate that after I dumped a ridiculous amount of career nesting crap into the back of my car, an unsolicited introduction resulted in a wake-up call to the importance of relationships. One connection introduced me to another, who introduced me to another, resulting in the privilege of learning from a strategic relationship master.
This one relationship has led to at least a dozen high-powered connections and already several opportunities that have rounded out my skills and increased my value in the marketplace. Much beyond that, I got to reverse my past mistakes and begin investing in relationships the right way, which will lead to immeasurable benefits going forward.
I look back and wish I had found a way to benefit that original link who made the first unsolicited introduction, because the series of connections that she kicked off have added exponential value to my life and career.
Relationships are a little magical. You never, absolutely never, know where one will lead.
So, shine openly and beyond the walls of your office, invest in everyone you come in contact with all the time (even if it's just a quick compliment), appreciate opportunities to volunteer yourself as gifts, and remember that anyone can grow their network into an all access pass by generously listening and competently adding value.