Why You're Thinking About Networking All Wrong

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When you think of the word networking, what comes to mind? Business connections? Introductions? Ladder climbing?

I recently read an article that cited new research that found that calculated professional networking for the purpose of career advancement leaves some people feeling physically dirty. At first I couldn’t understand this research, which will soon be published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Networking, if done correctly, can be a powerful and mutually beneficial tool. 

So why is it that the act of networking makes people feel gross? 

From the time someone enters college, he or she is constantly being told how vital a network is to personal and professional growth. Students are fed one-line zingers like “Your network is your net worth” and leave school hungry, nearly foaming at the mouth, trying to lap up connections and build a professional community as quickly as possible. 

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Young people are constantly told how connections can bolster and further their careers. So as a result, some have developed a taker’s mentality.

People today use their networks for its worth -- to advance, to meet, to learn. We tap into each and every person's resources because this is what they're told to do, that networks are there to help us. So we reach out and we take. 

Perhaps some people end up feel gross because there is something obviously self-serving about using a network for, well, personal career advancement. So what then? How do professionals build and work with their networks and not feel like blood-sucking leeches who are badly in need of a shower?    

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines networking as follows:

"the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business." 

Stop. Read that again but skip to the specifically part: the cultivation of productive relationships. In the rush to climb ladders, people neglected one another’s humanness and started treating others as tools. Moreover, we’re asking the wrong questions.

Instead channel John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your network can do for you. Ask what you can do for your network.” 

This is a concept I learned recently from a great mentor and friend. I initially had reached out to her blindly via LinkedIn because she worked at a company that interested me, an organization that I wanted to learn more about. I messaged her and hit -- what many would consider -- network gold. She was not only kind and intelligent but her passion is empowering women in business. Because of this, she took a special liking to me. 

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We emailed back and forth. She helped me land a job. I would email her to keep in touch. But sometimes without any prompting, she would send an opportunity my way: a freelance job, an educational program she thought would suit me, even creative contests. Each time she would reach out to me, I became more baffled than the last. She continued to help me, even when I wasn’t asking for it. Moreover, I had very little to offer in return. 

As time has gone on and I’ve gained more experience, I’ve tried as best as I can to reciprocate her kindness and generosity. If I think of people whom I believe she should meet, I do my best to connect her to them. If there’s something I think she would enjoy reading, I send it her way. I send her texts to check up on her new job or even her new apartment. I’ve found that I want to help her advance, just as she seemed to want to help me.

And most of all, I enjoy her friendship. We have found more than a working network: We have found a working relationship. 

So back to Merriam-Webster's definition. People not only need to cultivate productive relationships but also to change the way they think of the key word productive. A productive relationship is not one in which all that someone is doing is taking. That type of relationship is the type that will send a person straight to the shower. A productive relationship is one that focuses just as much on building up the people around as it does building up the person.

Ask not what your network can do for you. Yes, there are times when people need to reach out to others for advice, for a reference, for an introduction. But in building and maintaining relationships, this should not be the focus. The constant taking is what makes individuals feel dirty. The constant exploiting and taking -- that needs to take a back seat. 

Ask what can you do for your network. Do you know someone looking for a job? Help the person. Did you find an interesting article online that might suit someone else starting a business? Send it to her. Are you aware of two people who ought to know each other? Introduce them. Build friendships and build up one another because when your network succeeds, you succeed, too.

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