There’s a couple of things about networking I want to say right off the bat:
1. Nobody likes networking.
2. It doesn’t accomplish what you think it does anyway.
There are hundreds of articles written every year about how to make the most of those mix-and-mingle events. But none of the advice — Stand near the bar so you catch people when they’re feeling chatty! Write something funny on your name tag! Always be ready to give your elevator pitch! — is going to help you expand your network. Even the Harvard Business Review, which publishes many of those articles on networking, admitted that “99% of networking is a waste of time.”
This old-fashioned idea of networking doesn’t work. So what are we supposed to do?
The truth is that unless you’re just starting out in the business world, you already have enough contacts. You’ve just forgotten about them. And reconnecting with colleagues you already have a rapport with is much easier, not to mention much more productive, then standing in a room filled with strangers.
Normally, people tend to keep about the same number of contacts throughout their careers. Their core group remains fairly constant, but the group that they know less well changes all the time. As they fall out of touch with some of their contacts, they usually replace them with others.
But the past few years have been anything but normal. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers at Yale University discovered that people have fallen out of touch with 16% of their networks. Because we haven’t had opportunities for many face-to-face meetings over the past two years, we haven’t replaced them as quickly.
At the same time, we’ve strengthened our ties to the handful of people in our inner circles. That means we’ve grown much closer to the four of five people that we always turn to for help or advice, but more distant or completely disconnected from the dozens of acquaintances that we used to see occasionally when we had to travel to another office or attended that annual conference. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that at one tech company during the pandemic, employees increased communication with close collaborators by 40% and decreased it with other colleagues by 10%.
Before you head off to a networking cocktail party or a Zoom happy hour, consider working the contacts you already have.
Use your network’s network. When you want to expand your network, you often don’t have to go far. In her book The Lost Art of Connecting published earlier this year, author Susan McPherson explains that someone in your inner circle might have great suggestions about expanding your network. Don’t assume that asking them would be awkward. “One of the most powerful changes you can make right away to improve your business relationships is to change your mindset,” she writes. “Your existing network is your biggest asset—use it.”
“Often there are connections hiding in places you won’t expect, and there are relationships to be built in places you would have never imagined,” she writes. “The more people you know, and the better you know them, the more likely you are to succeed. And if you’ve worked hard to help those people, then you can be certain that those favors will come back your way, tenfold.”
Our recruiters at JBC use this tactic often when finding exactly the right candidates for roles. Our network has existed for well over a decade, and we frequently reach out to many of the first candidates that we placed. Even if they’re perfectly happy where they are, they often have a close colleague who would be a perfect fit.
Another example of this is an email I recently received from someone on LinkedIn. I don’t normally reply to random notes, but this guy was different. He connected the dots on a personal level and mentioned someone we had in common. When he asked if he could share a business idea, I agreed because he had put in the effort to make a real connection.
Reconnect with old acquaintances. Studies show that executives tend to get better advice from former colleagues than from current ones. So-called “dormant ties” are important because they tend to include information we haven’t heard before. Their careers have taken them in different directions, so they might have unique insights they didn’t have the last time you reached out.
Marissa King, author Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection, believes it’s important to revive our work relationships that have fallen by the wayside because of the pandemic. Her book was written well before the age of social distancing, but she makes a great case for the need for social interaction. (It reminds me of why our staff here at JBC comes into the office once a week. Everyone really appreciates the time together, but more importantly it creates real, meaningful social connections that are an anchor in our formula for culture and success.)
As we hopefully see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as the pandemic is concerned, it’s time to start rediscovering lost connections. Grabbing coffee with someone you already have longtime ties with beats awkward conversations at a networking party any day. Getting on a call with a former colleague just to check after these two tumultuous years might foster an important bond.
So forget about networking. It’s a waste of time. Instead, you should reach out to someone, offer help where you can, and put in the time to build some real human connections. It will pay off in ways that you might not expect.