Networking is one of the most important things you can do as a professional: It accounts for up to 85 percent of all job opportunities and is a big factor in on-the-job success in both salary and satisfaction.
I’ve seen just how crucial networking is as the co-founder of 4Degrees, a software platform dedicated to helping people build professional relationships. Over the years, I’ve come across hundreds of examples of networking done really well and — unfortunately — really poorly. Of all the mistakes, one pops up more often and in worse ways than others: Many people pursue relationship development inauthentically and awkwardly.
Bring Authenticity to Your Networking Strategy
Just like many mistakes, bad networking starts out with the best of intentions. Everyone knows that it’s important to form professional connections to get ahead, but a lot of the advice you see online and in books doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty detail of how to do it well. So you might just jump straight into the deep end: heading to a local happy hour mixer for folks in your industry and seeing what happens. You get there, feel awkward, struggle to connect with people and rush to hand over your business card and then get out of the conversation.
We’ve all been in — or seen — these cringe-worthy examples of networking gone wrong. The problem in scenarios like these is that you’re not being authentic. You’re starting with the “what” (networking) rather than the “why.” And it’s a shame because there are so many good “why’s”: learning, human connection, getting help, finding collaboration opportunities, helping others.
As I’ve helped people develop their networks, I’ve found one strategy that’s particularly helpful in fostering an authentic approach. You start by identifying something in your work-related life that you could use help with. It could be learning about a new industry, getting up to speed on a new topic related to a big project or getting perspective on the latest management or technology framework. Then you reach out to people to get help. And that’s it.
I call this approach campaign-based networking. As simple as it sounds, I’ve found in practice that it’s the difference between long-term, meaningful relationships and a stack of business cards in the trash.
How Campaign-Based Networking Works
Here’s how it works: Start by picking out your campaign. It should be something related to your job or your professional interests. It should involve a need for help (like why you’re reaching out to people) and it should be fairly meaty, not something that you can have answered with a single quick phone call.
Once you’ve picked a campaign, you start thinking about who could help you out. It’s often best to start with your existing network. Who do you know who could lend a hand or shed some light? But don’t stop there: Identify some industry influencers or second-degree connections that you don’t already know but might be able to meet as a part of the campaign. Where you can, map out pathways between yourself and these new people.
After you make your list of potential conversations, start doing the outreach. Send an email or a LinkedIn message briefly filling them in on your project and how they might be able to help. You’ll be surprised how many people respond back, happy to help. You see, people like helping. It makes them feel valuable and useful. Where an untargeted cold outreach might get a 5 percent response rate, a good email asking for someone’s help and expertise can often hit 20 percent to 40 percent with no previous connection.
Digital connection is OK, but it’s much better if you can get the other person on a phone call, video chat or to an in-person meet-up. More personal interactions lead to stronger relationships and a greater chance of you getting real value out of the conversation.
In the conversation itself, you should of course talk about your campaign and get help from the person however you can. That’s where the authenticity comes from: This is something you really do need help on and they really can help you out. While the long-term relationship is perhaps the main impetus of your effort, the real value that you can get through the process can be tremendously beneficial in its own right.
Beyond the central topic, you should also seek to form some personal connection if you can. It’s the rare person that wants to talk all work, all the time. You should also try to work in a request for further connection: Do they know anyone else who can help you out on your campaign? If you start with a list of seven people, you can easily get to 10 (or unlimited) just by asking for that quick favor before wrapping up the conversation.
The final all-important step is the follow-up. After you’ve had several conversations, reach back out to the person to thank them again for their time and let them know how it went. Consider putting together some kind of tangible work product that summarizes your findings or progress. It shows that you really did appreciate their time, they may get some value out of it themselves and it’s another authentic opportunity to connect.
Developing Networking Instinct
In my own career, networking campaigns have been an invaluable source of both help and long-term relationships. My co-founder and I used similar campaigns to help establish 4Degrees by getting feedback on our name, input on the early product and great referrals for key early hires. A deep dive into the diversity and inclusion movement within the tech industry five years ago resulted in meeting great friends and some of my favorite people in the industry today (not to mention a much healthier and equitable approach to business leadership).
The great thing about approaching networking authentically using campaigns is how natural it feels after you try it once or twice. You see some big topic or project you need help with and you’ll find that the first instinct becomes thinking about who you might be able to connect with to get that help. You do your outreach, have some great chats, solidify a few relationships and establish other new ones. You come out the other side with more knowledge and more meaningful professional relationships, and you’ll wonder why you hadn’t been pursuing networking like this all along.