Professional Networking – One size does not fit all

If let to your own devices… what kind of web would you weave (picture copyright by Misserion on flickr)

“It’s not what you know, but who you know.” This central mantra of career networkers is very true… and fills a lot of people with unpleasant feelings from slight nervousness, to disgust, to the feeling of outright failure, if you think you are not good at “networking”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

Living in Washington, DC, it is easy to think that networking is going to official “networking events” and forcing your business card plus a snappy one-liner on as many people as possible, while collecting as many other business cards and snappy one-liners in return. In the process you try to assess in as little time as possible, whether this new contact could be useful for you. If yes, keep on talking, if no, finish conversation as quickly as possible, without being outright rude.

Or maybe networking is what we imagine lobbyists do, inviting decision makers for dinner, trips and expensive treats in expectation of a favorable decision at some later time.

I’d say: Yes, being good at developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships can be very helpful in your career. But with two very important caveats:

  • Different kinds of jobs require different kinds of networks and
  • You will be most successful if your networking style is true to your personality.

Different networks for different jobs

A psychotherapist, a car salesman, a manager, a lobbyist and a scientist all can benefit from an ability to establish good personal connections. But they are very different kinds of connections and the resulting networks have very different shapes. A psychotherapist for example has to develop very deep and trusting individual relationships to each and every client. Any further network development beyond the star shape with the therapist in the middle, however, is not desired and may even lead to complications. Or a Woody Allan movie. Managers on the other hand often want those they manage to interconnect and start working in teams, even whithout micromanaging interference. While a car salesman thrives on a large network of clients and can make a living of their recommendations, many of the greatest scientists work with a close circle of trusted and inspiring colleagues with whom they collaborate again and again. Often, within the same organization, you have some technical people, who are inward oriented, who sit in the labs, working with a tight team, solving questions and then you have marketing and sales people, who develop large and boundary spanning networks, reaching way beyond the organization. Which leads me to the next point:

Find out which network style fits you

I am sure that when reading the above and thinking about your own work, there are some network descriptions which appeal to you much more than others. I, for example, really enjoy deep converstations in which I learn something about the other person and we connect as people. I also feel very comfortable interacting with people who are passionate about the same issue/content. Small talk, on the other hand, is not really what keeps me engaged and people who check out how useful I am for them and then keep on hopping away… well, all the better for me.

Now, you might have different networking preferences. And that is good, because someone has to do the jobs I would not be good at. The important thing is: Understand what kind of networking style suits you. Find a niche where this style is desired. Then network as well as you can, while staying true to yourself.

Advocacy Judo vs. Advocacy Weightlifting

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Advocate, don’t break your back (picture copyright by Mr. Moss on flickr)

Whether you are promoting new-born survivial in Nigeria, gay rights in a US church or agricultural policy reform in Bangladesh, you will always encounter people with a lot of influence on the outcome who couldn’t care less about your cause. How do you deal with a very powerful actor who doesn’t share your passion? The typical advocate’s approach is:

Make them passionate about your cause! Convince them of the importance of [fill in the blank].

That’s the weightlifter’s approach to advocacy. You carry the whole weight on your shoulders. And making someone care about something they don’t care about can be very heavy lifting. Advocates tend to be so passionate about their cause that they often don’t see how any good person could not care about their cause. How could anyone be against newborn survival or against stopping the spread of HIV? So if the governor, ministry of finance, parliament, media only knew about the problem, if we gave them enough information they would have to act and support us, right?

Well, no.

Unfortunately that rarely happens. Because there is a big difference between accepting that something is a legitimate concern and actively doing something about it. And to do something about it, you have to either become very passionate about it. And everybody who ever had their love rejected, knows: I can not make you passionate. I can not control someone elses passions. Or, and that’s where advocacy judo comes in: You have to use the power of their existing passions, goals and incentives to move them in your direction.

The most elegant throws and moves in Judo require very little energy from the one who is throwing, you just take the energy that is directed toward you and redirect it. You don’t ask: “Does my opponent really want to land on the mat, is flying through the air their passion?” You just look for the energy, no matter what it is directed toward, and channel it for your purpose.

If you want more funding for state level maternal health projects and the governor holds the purse strings, just stand there and watch him for a while, before you even start talking about mommies and babies, the suffering of the people and his moral obligation. Figure out his passion, what he puts his energy in, where his incentives lie. Then, with your ultimate goal in mind, redirect his energies. How do you do that? By reframing your goals and connecting them to his passions.

I don’t know your governor, but his energy could be directed toward

  • being re-elected
  • balancing the budget
  • his state looking good in competition with others
  • having great connections to international donors
  • being personally recognized and in the media all the time etc.

Now your task as a judo advocate is to develop a throw (storyline) where your goal (money for maternal health activities) achieves these things for the governor. If re-election is the issue, he needs to understand how much his constituents care about the issue. And that maternal health is not just a women’s issue but a family issue. If it’s balancing the budget, show how little investments lead to great impacts – also as compared to spending the same money on something else. If he is competitive with other states, statistics are your friend, set different governors up for a race: Who improves maternal and newborn mortality the quickest? You might even be able to give the winner a price. And you’ll definitely be able to get them a lot of face-time on the media. Developing great connections to donors and other international actors is something that is especially easy for you if you are funded by or work for an international organization. If this is one of your governors desires, help him out there, introduce him.

The indifferent influencer in your field might be a different one and with different drivers. But whatever their drivers are (as long as they don’t go against your conscience), use their energy to achieve your goals: Your sport should be judo, not weightlifting.