Putting aside the fact that the word makes me cringe — there’s just something smarmy and disingenuous about “working” to build genuine rapport — we all know that building a network is absolutely essential to being successful.
I get it. I’ve definitely found that the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” principle holds true in most cases. But the truth is, I’ve spent the majority of the past year “networking” less than a Tibetan monk. I’ve ignored conferences, skipped networking events, and turned down enough event invitations to convince my friends I’ve moved away.
And yet the past year has been one of the most rewarding and extraordinary of my life.
It’s not that I’m afraid to reach out to people I don’t know. In fact, I have a list of people and companies I can’t wait to contact, and I have no qualms making cold calls or asking friends to make a connection. But I firmly believe this one principle of great networking:
Your connection is only valuable to the other party if you have something to offer of value.
Which means that “networking” as a concept is really made up of two totally different things: creating value and sharing value. Creating value is about building yourself and your projects. Sharing value is about connecting yourself and those projects to other people.
So at the heart of networking — and before networking can really begin — is the act of creating something. To be a good networker, you have to learn how to be a good builder first. So this phase of mine — of late nights and early mornings, of working and constantly saying no to distractions — is just that: A phase. An essential period of creating something of value, of making myself valuable.
I don’t want the outcome of my projects to be a whimper of an idea, a ripple of water against your feet as you casually stroll the ocean sand. I want to keep building and make a splash.
Which is why I think about networking and building a network as two different phases — not mutually exclusive, but certainly distinct, and often independent of each other.
Sometimes, you’re in pure networking mode.
For example, you might have the perfect amount of experience and education for your dream job, and the only thing stopping you from landing it is the right connections. Or, you might be somewhere in between, working full-time and developing yourself while juggling networking events and your list of contacts as you seek new opportunities.
Other times, you’re in pure building mode.
You want that dream job, but it’s in a field with a set of unique skills and accomplishments you haven’t mastered yet. So you’re teaching yourself finance or you’re learning to code or you’re practicing nonstop to become a killer guitarist. You’re teaching yourself to become the person you want to be by creating the value you want to offer.
It’s that building phase, independent of networking — let’s call it “selfworking” — that I’m finding myself in now. It’s a phase I don’t see discussed very often, but that I feel is equally important as meeting new people.
On one hand, I’m aware that even incredible work inside a vacuum is useless. On the other, I know that everybody has ideas and loves talking about them, and you’ll be taken far more seriously if you have something to show instead of something to tell.
If there’s an art to charm, then there’s a science to connection. One party gives and the other takes. So —
If you have nothing to offer, why should anyone listen to you?
A few weeks before starting my first real job as a management consultant, I stumbled across Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, a superb book about the importance of organic networking. The book woke me up (though, given the building phase, I ironically now eat most meals alone these days). “I’m going to meet with one partner a week and get to know every senior manager in my office,” I told myself, a fresh-faced rookie, exuberant about building a network.
The first meeting was a disaster.
I can usually “wing it” when called upon, but I walked in to an important partner’s office without a plan and it was immediately obvious. I got a free pass because it was my first week, but I didn’t even demonstrate what I could or even wanted to offer. A typical baby analyst move: an urge to network before I had built.
The lesson stuck. If you’re meeting with someone who might open a door for you, you have to demonstrate why they should let you in. If you’re networking within your company, it might be as simple as putting together a list of your qualifications, areas of interest and previous experience, and being able to discuss how they apply to the projects you want.
But if you’re pitching a business, concept, or something as tangible as a screenplay, it will require some real dedication and discipline in creating a true product, not a half-baked or theoretical idea.
Remember: Creating allows you share. And sharing allows you to network.
Once you have something to offer — value, assistance, expertise, time, or a project that would interest other people — that is the moment they’ll listen to you. It’s simple and somewhat obvious, but it’s something I constantly have to remember when I feel the pressure to network while I’m still creating.
Because if you reach out too soon, you might be preemptively burning a bridge.
And if you do, then you’ll discover that networking at the wrong time might mean that you’re actually working against yourself! After all the effort of securing someone’s attention, the opportunity goes to waste once it becomes apparent that you’re not ready — that you haven’t done the work of building.
It’s like spending all your energy hustling your way onto Shark Tank, only to be slammed and dismissed for not thinking your business plan through. Or managing to pitch your favorite director on your screenplay, then having to admit that you haven’t written it yet.
No matter how well the relationship-building goes, it will always come back to the work.
But at some point, your building phase and your networking phase will overlap. A good builder will always require networking in order to continue building.
Think about building and selling a house. There will always be a limit to how far you can take your design and blueprint, at which point building the house on your own is unthinkable. So you network to find the right people to build, and you build together.
Once you finish, selling the house requires networking once again, to find the buyers and close the deal. The objective of this phase of networking is different: selling, not building. The value was created at the building phase and shared at the selling phase.
A corollary to that principle, however, is that we are always building. There’s never a magical moment when the building ends and the networking begins. It’s tempting to believe, but that’s just as dangerous as not building. I myself have been guilty of trying to make things perfect and missing opportunities to connect when what I have is good enough. Better to reach out than to never allow your work to see the light of day.
But what happens if you network before you’ve built enough?
The simple answer is this: Unless you say or do something egregious, a relationship — if it was created before your value was sufficiently developed — can almost always be rekindled in the future.
The person you talked to about an idea years ago might see your new business and think, “Oh, I remember you! You’re that guy that…” Not only is there a sense of familiarity, but you’ve demonstrated that you can follow through. It’s precisely then that the relationship can pay off.
So the principle always holds: You have to build in order to network. Sometimes you’ll find that you’ve networked before you built enough. Or, having shared your work with other people, you’ll learn that there’s more building to do. So you dive back into the building phase, which sets you up beautifully to move back into the networking phase, giving new meaning and relevance to those relationships.
These phases don’t compete; they connect. Our job is to move dynamically and authentically between the two.
If you build it, they will come
Before starting my online furniture business, I spent a lot of time blasting emails to retailers and designers, trying to determine my market and my strategy. I attended several conferences with hundreds of copies of a brochure that was outdated a month after I sent it to print. Most of my calls and emails went unanswered, and the few people I did connect with told me to circle back in the future.
I don’t know if this effort was wasted. Some of these connections might come to fruition. I do know that when I pitched a business with little more than a few products, a name, and a landing page, no one would listen. It was only when I hunkered down and got to work researching my market and defining my position that things started happening. I built my site, worked tirelessly to develop my brand, and people started reaching out to me. I also recognized when I reached the limits of my expertise or time, and reached out to find people to help me continue building, as needed.
There’s so much power in a strong network, but a strong network relies on your being powerful. If force = mass * acceleration, I see mass as your product (your value) and acceleration as networking (your relationships).
Both are equally important, but in a world where building a network gets celebrated as the most important activity —
Let’s not forget to build ourselves first.