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.

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