“If you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets.” Stephen Richards
Often times we may see an advert on Eventbrite or plausibly hear from a trusted friend the details about an upcoming networking event in an area of interest. If we have the bandwidth to attend, we get pumped! Usually because most of us have been programmed to believe networking is an exchange of business cards and after all, who doesn’t want to progress in their career or field of profession?
Based on a quick Google search, network is “a group or system of interconnected people or things.”
In most typical networking events, professionals flaunt in an outfit, which screams business and whispers casual. We then arrive just in time at the venue, confident and ready to “connect.” However, we pause and subconsciously wonder, “Who looks familiar?” or more extreme “Who seems to be the most important?” Often times -- as we wander ebulliently -- a seemingly outgoing attendee may spark a conversation. However, we tend to be so caught up on the idea of who we envision with the most valuable business card and as a result, we hesitate to relay our undivided attention. In most cases, this conversation lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. But before the person disappears, we make sure to get that business card. Then the cycle repeats over and over again until we exit the venue with a purse or wallet displaying a colorful band of cards. Networking event fulfilled, correct?
I beg to differ. Let’s revisit the definition of network. In this scenario, did we truly interconnect during our multiple interactions? The challenge here is most professionals are subconsciously programmed to envision networking as a transaction. The concept of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is ghostly imbedded in these settings. As a result, we go through a plethora of missed opportunities, generally due to our often-jaded perception of “who seems to be the most important?”
I love meeting people; in fact I genuinely crave meeting new people, listening attentively to their stories, and working seamlessly to comprehend how I can provide them value. As Viktor Frankl put it, “Man is pushed by drives but he is pulled by values.” That is my whyand it is what keeps me fulfilled. However, I was recently at the 10th Annual Clinton Global Citizen Awards, where there was a networking session prior to the event itself. In the engagement room, CEOs and founders of some of the world’s largest and most renowned organizations exchanged smiles across the room. Like a chameleon, I transformed. Then somehow began sorting people out. People who -- according to my perception -- could help fund an idea or a project parallel to their organization’s ethos. With such flawed mindset, I hopped from one person to the next, failing to take the time to understand what they do, why they do it, and how the most pivotal experiences on their professional journey has guided them to a life of meaning. Instead, I was selling my qualifications as if my life depended on it. I then left for my apartment that evening with a strong sense of accomplishment and emailed every single person I had spoken to. None of them responded.
This is what I took away from this experience:
- Carve out the time and mental space to listen attentively
- Respond based on what is openly shared
- Humanize the interaction by displaying empathy
In truth, we network every single day. That is the power of familiarity. Our brains are designed to prefer communication patterns that seem similar to the patterns we indulge in daily. This opens doors to be our truest selves. In our communities, we are constantly conversing with the same people, building trust in the process, and formulating incredibly strong bonds. The beautiful part about this is we expect nothing in return. Now, that is the essence of congruent networking.
Congruent networking is all about building meaningful relationships. Imagine going to a networking event and having a meaningful conversation with just two people -- at random. The concept of quality over quantity is so prevalent in this scenario. Who do you think they will recall when they get home? Since you took the time to actually listen, respond, and empathize, they may actually feel compelled to build a lasting professional relationship.. And more importantly, this is another person who can graduate from being an acquaintance to being a friend. One reason why bridging the gap between acquaintance and friendship is so vital:
In the late 1960s, Mark Granovetter, a Harvard PhD student, studied how 282 men had found their current professions. His experiment considered factors ranging from how the men had learned about open positions, whom they had called for referrals, the methods they used to land interviews, and lastly,, who had provided a helping hand. As expected, he found that when his participants approached strangers for assistance, they were rejected. However, when they appealed to friends – whether weak or strong ties – help was provided. Now think about that.
Just to put all this into context, I believe my experience, as a sales employee at Ralph Lauren is quite applicable here. I landed the job – with zero experience in sales – because I met a lady (now a best friend) at Washington Square Park one cool summer. After a lengthy conversation about the fashion industry, we kept in touch. As time progressed, I would run into her from time to time. Almost a year later, she sent me a text inquiring if I would be interested in working for Ralph Lauren. Her brother was recruiting and she thought I would be a good fit for the open role. That one referral alone landed me the job. But that isn’t the whole story. As a pre-med student then, I had no idea I was capable of selling yet I was somehow exceeding my quota each month. It was surreal. The trick – which I had no idea was LinkedIn-pioneered – is I was social selling offline.
Whenever a potential client walked into the store, I somehow refrained from selling. Rather, I strategically inquired about their background, talked about their passions, and openly shared my interest for providing value to them. During my second month in the sales role, clients would come to the store and then opt to shop on a different day if I were not present. (For readers in client facing sales roles, check out this article on New Yorker: Victoria’s Secret). That is congruent networking in a nutshell.
We all have the innate capability to build meaningful relationships because we are social beings and we internalize ideas from our socialization. We were born curious. So next time you go to that networking event, do not focus on doing what everyone else does. Rather, commit to examine, understand, empathize, respect, appreciate, and carefully evaluate how this person sees life. I promise that will make all the difference.