I think it came at an Industrial Engineering class at Berkeley, but the gist of it was this: don’t think of it as networking- think of it as a way to help people. That’s it. It’s super simple. And it makes me feel less creepy and awkward and gross when I do it. Because I genuinely do want to help people do whatever it is they want to do and accomplish in life.
The way it works is this: You just listen to what the other person has to say. Who they are. Where they’re from. Where do they work? What are they looking for? What are their likes? What are they passionate about? And there’s usually two types of things you can help them with:
- Professional: Help them out with their work. Maybe they are looking to hire a programmer, but are having a tough time. Maybe introduce them to your programmer friend who can send it out on listserves that he knows about. Or maybe tell them about a job board which you’ve had a lot of luck hiring from.
- Personal: Find out what motivates them and what they REALLY want to be doing in life. A lot of people I meet are really interested in exploring jobs in the social enterprise space, so I introduce them to the people I know who work at jobs they are interested in. If they have kids, maybe their kids need help. One guy I met had a kid who was interested in engineering at UC Berkeley, so I introduced his kid to some of my friends who went through different engineering programs. Maybe they really love jazz, and are visiting town for the weekend. Tell them about this awesome jazz club that you know about, and send them the info about it.
Also, remember that in this “networking” game, all you have is your credibility, so make sure you don’t lose it. Don’t waste people’s time-whenever you make an introduction, make sure BOTH parties are gaining from it. In the email, make it very clear what party 1 is looking to gain, and what party 2 can offer (and vice versa). Make sure you do your homework about both parties beforehand. People can tell when you’re fake and it’s super annoying and a little creepy. I can definitely tell when someone just introduced me because they wanted something from the other person (so it looks like they’re doing him a favor). They just lost major credibility points in my book and I am less inclined to respond next time they send me an email.
Another kink, which I just discovered when I attended the Clinton Global Initiative, is when you are the youngest person there, and really have nothing to bring to the table (so to speak). The personal part still holds, but a lot of times, if you are meeting CEO’s, or Heads of States, you just look really dumb. Ok, maybe I just looked really dumb, and it was really hard to start a conversation. People really just didn’t want to talk to me. But on the third day of CGI, I just figured, what the hell. I may as well learn about everyone else’s field since I am sitting next to the decision makers. And guess what- we had really great conversations. And it turns out they wanted to help me out. It took me a day (of really really awkward conversations) to finally figure out a third approach to differentiate yourself:
- Ask really good, high level questions about that person’s organization/field. And be genuinely interested/curious (that is a must).
For example, staying in the clean tech space you can ask questions like: What is the one policy change that you would make to make the biggest impact in combatting global warming? In your opinion, what is the best technology out there (most bang for our buck), and what receives the most hype? Where do you see the field in 10 years? How does the United States compare to the rest of the world, and what steps do you think we need to take to become world leaders? Engage in conversation! Use this opportunity to learn as much as you can from people who know a ton. This way, they know you’re not just there to “network”. You’re there to learn, and become more informed. In turn, they ask you about what you do and more often than not, they try to find ways to help you out. Speaking from personal experience.
Also, I decided to ask my burning questions that I didn’t know who else to ask. These mostly had to deal with management (since that transcends all fields). Some sample questions: Do you think Human Capital is what is keeping social enterprises from scaling? What do you think is more important: a culture of discipline, or a culture of innovation? How can you make change in lower levels of management if upper management is not on board? How do you become a leader from within?
That’s my two cents on networking. Other advice /best practices are appreciated.