A Primer on Networking

No, not computer networking. I meant the people kind.

Not long ago, an acquaintance said that he’s jealous about the fact I’m so socially fluid and can strike up conversations easily with strangers.

That caught me off-guard — I have never been an extrovert.

I was the stereotypical video game nerd in the corner of the classroom throughout my teenage years. But his comment did help me confirm that my investment in social skills has been working as intended, hence this post you are currently reading.

Networking is something I have been wanting to write for a long time, but it’s also easy to get it wrong in the sense that I just end up spewing regurgitated thoughts. And, to be honest, I don’t consider myself to be great at it either — I just don’t think it takes much to be decent at it. Note that the keyword here is “decent”, not “expert”. I also fall under that same category.

(If you can gracefully waltz in and out of any social occasions, then this is probably not the post for you. If you are or know someone who is indeed an expert, please drop me an email — I would really appreciate a quick chat.)

Many young adults think people are either born to be socially fluid or they are not. That’s simply untrue. It’s true that networking can indeed be challenging if you’ve not been exposed to a wide variety of social formalities while growing up. For those who are struggling with anxiety issues, there are legitimate medical causes in play (and please do seek professional help if you do, reading my post isn’t the answer to your question). But for the rest of us, networking is a matter of finding a set of strategies that are tailored for ourselves, so that we can achieve the maximum amount of social effectiveness with the least amount of friction.

In other words — you can learn how to network, whether you are an extrovert or not.

People who tell you it doesn’t work fall into either one of these categories:

  • They haven’t figured it out, or perhaps even fearful about it, and elbow rubbing is all they see on the surface.

  • They have had bad experiences with it and have decided that it’s not worth it.

Since you have decided to click and read this article, I presume that you don’t belong to the latter.

This post is a primer on the what-why-how of networking from my point of view. What I want to do is to lay out the specifics as plainly and honestly as possible for you. For scenarios that could use a bit more clarity, I will use an example dialogue to illustrate the techniques I have personally attempted — those have all been proven to yield results.

Are you ready for great fun of learning about networking?

Probably not. It’s about exciting as it sounds, but just keep on reading for now.

I’m not sure how many of you have had the word “networking” being peppered to you by career counselors in school or at alumni meet-and-greet events, and yet somehow still couldn’t quite get what it’s supposed to mean. Because it probably isn’t that intuitive in the first place. If you didn’t come from certain family backgrounds, networking as a concept can be vague and difficult to wrap your head around it.

Having been an international student, I (un)fortunately got to meet many children of wealthy businessmen and influential politicians. They are all deeply aware of the value of relationship building (despite that, having grown up with an overabundance of material goods, most of them them are fall short in the humility department).

(Being young, naive, and harboring an inferiority complex of my working class background — my biggest misgiving was that I distanced myself away from those peers. In retrospect, putting up with their arrogance would’ve been a small price to pay if I could just learn a tip or two about their world view. Now that I look back, this is especially true as many of them are now a part of well-known organizations.)

Here are a few things that came to my mind about networking, intentionally or unplanned, that have given me success over the past ten years:

  • An acquaintance notified me about a student staff job opening at her workplace, which became my entry point into the industry; this subsequently led to meeting the friend that referred me to my first full-time job after graduating from college.

  • In mid 2019, a quick status update of “I am open for new opportunities” on LinkedIn netted me close to a dozen of messages to help with referrals.

  • After not seeing much result by applying through the usual job sites, I started cold messaging and emailing HR and talent staff directly. One of them generously offered to forward my resume to the hiring manager — that’s how I ended up with my current position. (Thank you, Ms K.)

At its core, networking isn’t a complicated concept. Here it is boiled down into one line: build a positive relationship with people who can help you with different things now or in the future. Instead of thinking it as one single skill, think of it as a bucket of soft skills that you can pick and choose in combination to achieve the aforementioned goal. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to it as a single concept below.

If you are familiar with the meaning of “networking” in IT, it’s the same principle. Think of your self as a host and imagine the people around you as network nodes. You can just let those nodes idle, or you can ask them to connect to farther nodes that might hold information that’s of value to you. This exponential nature is the true power of networking: the more personal connections you have (which you can always create), the farther and wider you reach is, and the more likely you can find someone to help when you are in need of a favor. And this goes both ways.

This is what the saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is meant to illustrate.

(A major red flag to watch out for: if someone ever reaches out to you for vaguely described opportunity that sounds too good to be true — using phrases like to “increase your wealth”, “diversify your influence”, or anything along those lines — it’s more than likely a MLM scheme. Needless to say, just ignore the invitation and move on to better things to do with your time.)

There are a few important thoughts worth emphasizing before I move on.

It isn’t about manipulating people. Some bad actors do manipulate people through the veil of networking; you can achieve greater results by being earnest instead. I cannot deny that certain networking strategies do involve some degree of influencing other people’s behaviors, but you can do so in a way that’s meant to be build a mutually beneficial relationship — a professional friendship, so to say. (In other words: do your homework and act in the best interest of others.)

An all too common example of this is job referrals: a great position opened up at your company and you have a talented acquaintance who might be a good fit, so you reached out to the person to suggest for a referral. The person passed the interview with flying colors, so you get a bonus check in helping with the hire. Both of you now have each other as a strong ally within the company. Also, the manager is pleased with your help. Win-win for everyone.

It is simple in theory, but it is also very much a complex set of skills in itself that requires constant practice. This is very important for you to understand — just like learning a new language or a new instrument, you need to consistently study and practice to get good at networking. Similarly, as with all learnable skills, a shallow commitment yields limited results. For instance, exchanging business cards with another person means very little if the two of you haven’t gotten to really know one another; there’s no actual progress made aside from swapping two pieces of cardstock. I cannot overstate how crucial it is to really connect with people and treat them with respect rather than treating them as human resources.

The other piece of info here is that nobody is born an expert and that we all have to start from somewhere. There are people with more aptitude and time at their disposal to develop the skills, so they give off an impression that they are a “natural”, but that’s far from the truth.

It is always going to feel icky, but don’t let that be a deterrent. Unless you are a complete extrovert or a pure sociopath, feeling uncomfortable when meeting and socializing with strangers is perfectly normal. (And why are you even reading this if you fit either description?)

It’s always how it’s been since the dawn of civilization — from thousands of years ago, people have been exchanging favors with one another, traversing circles and hierarchies. It is an integral aspect of society. If you avoid it, you aren’t lowering your chances; you are limiting yourself by standing way behind the starting line.

It will lead to many failures and rejections — there is no way to avoid them and you will be frequently disappointed. This is especially true if you have a thin skin. We make mistakes like being too brash about our requests, blabbering about political opinions, asking really broad questions that are difficult to answer, trying too hard to impress and backfire, etc. It happens and you just have to learn to let go of the frustration then try to do better next time.

Even the most experienced networkers meet rejections every now and then. The difference is that they are much less prone to make basic errors and are faster to recover from rejections, both of which should also improve for you over time as you dedicate more practice into developing the skills.

It takes time to grow a network and you have to tend it from time to time. Have you heard of the phrase “grow it before you need it”? I’m not talking about your backyard garden, obviously, but the same principle does apply to your own network; you can’t wait until you are starving before you start planting the seeds. People tend to only wait until they are looking for jobs before they reach out to others, which can leave an impression that you don’t care about your relationship with people until you need them. It goes without saying that it leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

Rather than disappearing from the face of Earth until you need somebody, tap into their life and have a genuine conversation every now and then — even if you aren’t close with each other, a congrats on a promotion or achievement could help warm up the relationship for an easier conversation that you can return to later.

So comes the question: where and how do you start? You start by talking to less familiar people in your immediate circles and steadily work your way outward.

Whether you are working or still in school, that’s an existing network that you can tap into, and you probably haven’t done so enough. I say this because most people have the tendency to limit their interactions to the people they are familiar with and don’t really make an effort to branch out.

College students are particularly bad at this, largely because many of them are still trying to figure out how this whole “network” thing works. They might sign up for an interdisciplinary course, study the materials diligently, but rarely make an attempt to get to know classmates outside of a group discussion. This is such a missed opportunity: all those soon-to-be graduates will enter the job market around the same time, scattered across all over the place, and having that foundation laid down ahead of time translates to a wide network available for yourself in the future.

The same can be said about your workplace, though it might require some creative maneuvering if your position doesn’t offer too many direct interactions with people outside of your team — given how cliquey some groups are, it can also be pretty challenging to break into other teams’ circles. Personal experience tells me that holiday parties are a great occasion to expand your reach: strike up a conversation while waiting in line for food, sit at an open seat next to strangers, walk around with a drink and see if anyone seems eager to talk, etc.

It’s important to know that foods and drinks are a great social lubricant, as they give you a reason to have some individual time with the person away from the usual environments, so make good use of them — this is why “coffee chat” is named as such.

Before you reach out to anyone directly, it’s better to casually observe their behavior and personality in group gatherings first. You can then judge whether or not the person might be receptive to find a new ally at work. Personally, I have found that it’s easiest to reach out to others who enter the organization at the same time as you do, as you are going to share similar experiences and your exchanges are more likely going to benefit one another.

“Hi Jenny! It’s been a few months since the on-boarding event and I hope things are going smoothly over there. We just accepted a new project with marketing today, but I also just realized I don’t know much about what operations your team is involved in. I’m thinking we can maybe grab coffee some time this week, catch up, and exchange some information? I see your calendar is pretty open on Thursday, so let me know if you’d be available for this — I will send you an invite immediately.”

Ultimately, the key to make connections in school or at work is really just about being helpful, doing great work, and don’t cause unnecessary trouble for others. (I know at least few people I would never recommend because of how much misery they caused by slacking in group projects.) Unless it’s a serious scenario, just try not to be a stickler if you can do somebody a favor and make a new friend.

Another option is to ask around your family and friends to see if they can help make introductions — there’s a good chance that at least one of them knows a person that would be great for you to meet and can likely lend you a hand sooner than later. Again, it will always feel icky, and you just have to work past that feeling.

While chatting with your family members at the next gathering, try and ask them if they happen to know someone who also works in a similar job as you do, or just anyone interesting in general. Of course, pick and choose who you ask: don’t go asking your 70 year old relative who doesn’t even reside in the same country as you do. Just bring it up when you get the chance and make sure get at least a name or contact info of some sort.

“... So, uncle, do you know anybody who works similar jobs like I do? I’m looking to meet more people in my line of work and I know you have a lot of connections in this town. Give me a buzz anytime when you think of a name.”

Beyond that, it’s a matter of actively stepping out of your comfort zone and putting yourself out there — whether it is attending meetups or reaching out to strangers online. Remember that networking is a skill that requires constant practice or else it will atrophy over time.

(A word of caution: don’t go to events that are designed only for general networking. They tend to be filled with awkward rituals and are rarely a good use of time. Opt for events that you are actually interested in, then network with other attendees on the side as you take part in activities.)

LinkedIn gets a bad rep for being fake and shallow at times, but it’s also second to none when it comes to professional networking. (You wouldn’t count on networking on Instagram, would you?) The real questions are what you intend to use it for and how you utilize it; far too many people just treat it as an online resume and a job application platform.

Two aspects of this website that come in particularly handy are the map of connections and the people’s organizational affiliations. Given that the information is more or less accurate, having access to these two sets of information immediately opens up many opportunities for networking purposes — alumni at firms you are interested in joining, classmates that are connected to a person you’d like to meet, etc. The phrase “grow it before you need it” is particularly true here: don’t just wait until you need to hunt for jobs before you hop on the website. Try to spend half an hour every now and then to actively check in on people’s updates, so it gets easier when you do need to reach out to them.

People are generally more willing to accept invitations from someone who share social circles as they do, even if you are several graduation batches apart or you belong to different company branches. This “common ground” tie is a very strong foundation to start with, so make good use of it as often as you need to.

“Hi Chelsea: Your profile came up in the LinkedIn suggestions list today and I noticed we both went to UNV, and we were also both a part of the PMSG student association, hence this invitation. I recently moved to this area for a junior product management role, and I would really love to make a new friend. Thanks and I look forward to know you more!”

A specific scenario is where you are reaching out with an ask — a favor or an activity that involves the other person.

There really isn’t any secret to this — you throw out an inquiry then you hope to get back a “yes” in response. But there are two rules of thumb to keep in mind to help facilitate the arrangement and increase the likelihood of success: be concise with your ask and make it easier for the other to respond. Saying “I would like to pick your brain” or “I’m looking to expand my network” is about as useful as saying nothing; a generic request begs for a lukewarm response or muteness. Similarly, saying “can we talk some time” or “hope to meet up somewhere” just adds unnecessary burden for the other person — is “some time” within the next week or next month and where is “somewhere” exactly?

Background, intention, and logistics are the three key areas to hit here. Briefly describe your situation (background), clearly state why you wanted to talk (intention), and then offer specific options to help the other person make a decision (logistics). If you think you have something that the other person might be interested in (value proposition), emphasize it as a part of your intention.

Note that this ask is often only done after you have an established inroad, after a brief initial exchange is done or the invitation is accepted on LinkedIn. You want to do the ask only after you’ve at least warmed up the relationship slightly, otherwise it would appear too abrupt or out of nowhere. In other words: when it comes to asking for something, be expectable rather than be surprising.

“Dear Professor Hiro — I have a favor to ask: I’m looking to apply for the Industrial Engineer II position at MacroGear (http://macrogear.com) and I saw that you are connected with the hiring manager on LinkedIn, Sherry Lynn, who appears to be an alumna of the same graduate program at your Alma mater. I would very much appreciate it if you are willing to setup an introduction, so I could directly discuss my qualifications with her. I have attached the job posting, my CV, and a brief introductory statement in this email. The application time frame isn’t urgent, so it would be fine as long it’s arranged within the next four weeks. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns and I will be happy to answer them for you.”

Speaking of the phrase “I’m looking to expand my network”... that’s such a lame introduction. Please don’t ever go down this route. The reason I say this is that you need to have clear intentions when you network — whether it’s reaching out to an individual or attending an event. Note that I’m not saying to not make an effort to get to know others unless you want something from them. It’s more about clarifying your intention and establishing rapport.

If you are at an event, there are far more natural ways to say that you are there to meet people than to use that phrase. Talk about how the topic of the event interests you or that you are looking to befriend like-minded folks. You don’t want to come across that you are floating from place to place aimlessly.

If you don’t have a good reason to reach out to someone directly other than “to expand the network”, then perhaps don’t do it. Because if you choose a specific person to talk to, then you must have an equally specific reason in mind, no matter how trivial it might be. Your responsibility is to spell out that reason as I described above, so that you can make your intention understood and clear out any roadblocks that might cause confusion and doubts.

Most importantly, a directed reach out adds a bit more genuine touch to your invitation, which can easily be the determinant as to whether a stranger will reply to your first knock on the door.

(That said, there are times when people just aren’t interested in talking, especially if you take a “cold” approach — when you reach out to a person without any prior sign or no one has helped make the introduction. Far more likely than not, you aren’t doing anything wrong; people in general aren’t keen to converse with strangers. Respect that boundary and don’t keep pushing.)

A vast majority of networking itself is the back and forth of exchanging words, so it goes without saying that it is crucial to know how to keep a conversation engaging for both sides. This is true whether you are talking in person, through a phone call, or in a messaging app. The three common mistakes in this regard are:

  • Asking abstract or philosophical questions. (Example: “where do you think the future of the agricultural industry is at?”) There are times where these “big” questions can be useful. Far more likely than not, though, they will just stump people. Try to favor topics and questions that are concrete and simple, so people can respond more easily, which will also help you to decide which topic areas you want to dig further into.

  • Sticking to the script. While it’s good to prepare a list of topics or questions to guide you through the chat, don’t treat it as if it’s an interview. In other words, go off script whenever you need to, particularly if the atmosphere feels a little stiff or if the person mentioned anything interesting. Sometimes, it’s best to let things flow organically rather than following a plan — if the chat is going well and both of you are enjoying it, you won’t need a script to guide you step-by-step. Which is why it’s crucial to not be...

  • Losing sight on the overall flow of communication. If having done hundreds of user research interviews has taught me anything, it’s to take brief pauses when you need to, so you can think through the last exchange or give room to the other side if he or she has just thought of a follow-up to share. A jam packed conversation is exhausting. If you don’t give it enough time to breathe in between segments, a rapid-fire Q&A would make it feel like an interrogation. Also, if anything is unclear or confuses you, a simple trick is to take a moment to parrot their words back to them, which often will prompt them to talk more about the topic in question.

Now, even though I say that you should strive to keep on networking, understand that you should go about it with moderation — just like any activities that you want to have turned into a habit (e.g., going to gym). You should make a conscious effort to do some every week, but don’t let the expectations drag you down. If you are going through a rough time, it’s okay to take a break. When you are setting up a meeting time or location, offer options that you’d be comfortable with. And yes, that message that came in at 11PM doesn’t need to be replied asap; it can wait until your coffee break in the morning.

Networking is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to move faster just to outrun others; it’s not a race. Pace yourself, stop for a drink once in a while, and just enjoy the process with everyone else.

Happy networking!

PS — Here’s my LinkedIn. Come say hi.