Helen Hua is Vice President of Portfolio Talent at Insight Onsite where she leads executive talent and talent best practices. Before joining Insight, Helen was a Principal at True Search, an international executive search firm.
Recently, an NYT article penned by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, resonated with me. In it he argues that networking is overrated: you should be good at your job, and relationships will develop as a consequence of your performance.
I agree that doing high-quality work is the best way to build strong relationships, but there are times when having good networking skills is important. Over time, and given my focus on executive talent, I’ve found it helpful to build a systematic approach. In this blog, I’ve documented my thinking.
Depth over quantity
Networking can be exhausting and hard work, especially if you’re attending an event after a long day in the office, or like many people, you’re an introvert. I’m not always excited to go to networking events because they can be filled with people who are transactional—those who want something from you, and constantly look for someone more interesting to talk to, even as they’re conversing with you—which makes events feel like a chore.
For these reasons, I focus on attending curated, smaller gatherings, where I can enjoy a few longer conversations instead of having many short, superfluous interactions.
My goal at business conferences or events is not to score business cards simply to expand my network. If I have one interesting, meaningful conversation from a gathering—a chat of at least 15 minutes—and I feel confident that the person will remember me when I subsequently send that LinkedIn request or email, I consider the time invested well spent. A few in-depth conversations at an event are useful professionally and personally.
Lead with passion and authenticity
People with overt networking objectives at events can be annoying. The most compelling people are those who are passionate about something. It could be your company or work, but the secret to being someone that other people want to meet is to dig deeper and think about other areas that give you purpose. This also serves to ensure that you’re memorable and stand out from the many interactions that people have in a day.
For example, one of my passions is diverse leadership. A few years ago, after years of placing leaders into some of the most interesting and well-capitalized start-ups and VCs in Silicon Valley, I began to feel tired of seeing so little diversity. I started asking contacts to introduce me to people who shared my passion and frustration, which led to connections with some of the most incredibly diverse leaders in my industry—people that may not have normally taken the time to meet with me. When I met these people, I was also able to build more meaningful relationships because we shared similar values.
The point here is that no matter what your values and passions are, leading with them will yield more valuable relationships than superficial discussions. Don’t shy away from sharing personal information and showing that you’re multi-faceted with lots of interests.
Networking doesn’t end with the event
Careers are long; you have 10, 20, 30 working years ahead and you never know where your career and choices will lead. With networking, it’s worth remembering that you’re playing a long game with your relationships and personal brand.
One of the ways to cement business relationships for the long-term is to find things that you can do to help others. Good networkers seek out genuine ways that they can assist someone with their career or passion, even if it’s a book idea or relevant article. By showing thoughtfulness, you will build goodwill and ensure that people remember you.
As an example, something I find that people often forget to do is say thank you. Don’t make this mistake—take the time to give thanks, even if it feels “late.” A thoughtful thank you note, even weeks later, is better than none at all.
Many times I have met someone who has provided an introduction or given me a kernel of advice that has made a huge impact. Months later I think, “I should thank that person for that advice/ introduction.” People like to know the outcome of their kindness has led to a positive result. Your thank-you note will likely brighten their day, encourage the cycle of giving, and may pay unforeseen business dividends in the future.
Networking is a craft like any other
As Adam Grant suggests, you should focus on outstanding work and great outcomes. Networking is a skill like any other that can be honed to ensure business outcomes; by increasing your authenticity and committing to a few interesting conversations per event, rather than multiple transactional ones, you will build a valuable list of interesting business contacts.
We can’t be friends with everyone, but we can let honesty and genuine interest guide our interactions.
Pro tip addendum
For those new in their career, or new to networking, here’s one of my favorite networking moves. Remembering names and details about someone can be difficult, especially when you're meeting several new people. When I’m speaking to someone whose name I’ve forgotten, I find a third person nearby and say, “Oh, have you two met yet?” A large percent of the time they will introduce themselves to one another, and I’ll get another shot at remembering their name. Plus, I come across as helpful.