There have been and continue to be a lot of discussions and commentary about the topic of people and their predisposition (or lack thereof) to being social. TED talks, behavioral studies, personality assessments, memes, books, documentaries, TV shows, news reports, movies – there’s a slew of different forms that the discussions and commentary come in.
Translating that topic into our world of business academics, there’s a very important item that is pushed heavily upon students within business schools: networking. I’m sure some may read or hear the word “networking” and think of it as nothing more than the fancy business version of the phrase “being social.” Others may read or hear “networking” and immediately tense up as they imagine themselves at a professional event where they know absolutely no one. To the latter group, “networking” is an ugly word that usually incites some level of anxiety. I know because I was (and still am, to some extent) part of the group that finds “networking” to have almost nothing but negative connotations attached to it. For my fellow members of that group, I’d like to propose to you something that has helped me greatly over the last year and a half: stop trying to “network” and start having a conversation.
Before we can move to having a conversation, we need to take a look at networking first. What are the goals of networking? What all does networking involve?
For starters, networking focuses on expanding one’s network in a mutually beneficial manner. With an expansive network, a professional has connections available to help or get help from easily. One of the most commonly noted upsides to effective networking is the increased likelihood of obtaining job positions. Companies are considerably more likely to hire someone who can be vouched for over a stranger they have very little information on. Networking can involve joining professional or student associations, attending conferences, following up with individuals one interacts with, going to socials, etc.
Networking is essentially “putting yourself out there” to meet new people and make connections. To some, this is a daunting task as it involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Alongside this, there’s constant external pressure for students to have a memorized elevator speech, keep their social media clean, have a robust LinkedIn account, constantly follow up on LinkedIn with professionals they meet, have their desired future industry and specific few companies to work for identified, attend as many professional events and conferences as possible and speak to as many people as possible at said events, join and be an active member in student and professional organizations, randomly reach out to professionals in their desired field regularly, attend networking workshops, etc.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above items. In fact, proper usage of networking activities is extremely vital to one’s career. However, focusing on all of these tasks and expectations is effective at removing the human element from networking so let’s take a step back and, as I proposed before, stop trying to network and start having a conversation.
It’s difficult to be comfortable with the expansive list of networking activities if one isn’t already comfortable with the baseline foundation of networking: talking to another human being. Networking isn’t a means to an end. It isn’t a torturous test. It isn’t some secret memo that everyone else got and you didn’t. Networking is a conversation. Don’t feel like a professional with years of experience isn’t going to want to talk to you just because you’re a student. We’re all human and, if we’re being honest, no one has a complete understanding of everything that’s going on.
The commonly repeated sentence “fake it ‘till you make it” exists for a reason. Stop placing the divide of inexperienced student versus professional between yourself and those you meet. If you boil down the situation to its most basic form, you are simply meeting and having a conversation with another person. Introduce yourself as you would to anyone else that you just met. Keep in mind the context you’re in (social, networking event, career fair, student chapter meeting, professional association meeting, presentation, etc.) as you speak with the person. Let the conversation grow organically instead of trying to force topics you’ve pre-prepared. Don’t think about whether you got your elevator speech word for word as you practiced, when it’s a good time to ask for their business card or if they would like yours, what’s a good time gap before you reach out to them on LinkedIn afterwards, or anything else of that sort. Just have a conversation and I promise you that networking will become a lot less difficult.
Whether networking is easy or hard for you, I hope that this perspective on it helps. I can personally attest to the fact that this change in mindset has helped me greatly in being more comfortable networking. With all that said, I’d like to challenge you to take a step back from yourself and understand that you’re just talking to another human being when you’re “networking.” All the other complementary stuff like LinkedIn, business cards, follow ups, elevator speeches, etc. can follow after you’ve had the chance to focus on the conversation.