The old question for success was “What do you know?” In the information age, though, we all have access to Google. Knowledge has become a commodity and is taken for granted. What you should be asking yourself instead is “What can you do, and who do you know?” (Yes, I know it should be whom, but nobody really talks like that.) And in our global, social media-driven, freelancing economy, it has never been easier to get to know a wide variety of people. Networking allows us to create opportunities for ourselves and others that don’t already exist. We can leverage our professional networks to solve problems, help others, and inspire change in the world. Sounds like a super power to me!
Author’s note: This article is an excerpt from my book Network Beyond Bias.
What Networking Is…and Isn’t
Networking, in many people’s minds, involves some sort of smarmy, schmoozy, fast-talking fakery. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Real networking means understanding what people want or need, building trust broadly, and brokering relationships where everyone wins. For example, imagine you worked with Samir five years ago. He has since been promoted to management and is opening a new branch office in your small hometown. You anticipate that Samir will need to hire a receptionist, a couple of sales agents, and an accountant. You introduce Samir to your childhood friend, Fatima, who just became a CPA. Now Samir is one step closer to reaching his goals, Fatima is on her way to full employment, and you are fondly regarded as the catalyst of their meeting.
Not All Heroes Wear Capes
At one point in my career, I told people I was a Professional Networker. My job title was much less descriptive and had to do with Advanced Analytics. Buy my real job was to connect people who had very specific questions about the inner workings of a business to people who had the detailed, if incomplete, answers that they had forgotten years ago. Sometimes I could make that happen with one phone call or email. Most of the time, though, it involved tracking down numerous false leads, analyzing org charts, sifting through documentation, and getting creative with my questions. I saved my colleagues time and frustration and saved my company a lot of money…through the power of networking. One manager even told me that his team referred to me as a superhero in meetings because I was able to help them so consistently.
It took me a while to recognize my role as a Professional Networker. But once I realized I had this super power, I started to see how I could apply it in other contexts. By expanding my network, I began to synthesize information across disciplines and industries. I was better poised to connect more people to each other and to new ideas. By getting out of my cubicle, I found new answers to “What can you do, and who do you know?” And, as a result, I’ve created new opportunities for myself and others.
And you can, too.
Even If You’re New to the Workforce…
Even with no professional experience, you can make great things happen for people in your network. Listen to them and ask open-ended questions. Once you understand what kinds of problems people are working on or what they’re interested in, send them occasional links to articles or blog posts on those topics.
…And Especially in the Gig Economy
Networking in the freelancing space, or gig economy, saves time and money. Morgan, your blogger friend, might need an infographic for some cornerstone content. Your coworker Shae has a side hustle and will do a great job. Your recommendation can help Morgan sift through the noise of a million freelance options to find Shae’s storefront. Their small transaction via Fiverr or 99Designs, for example, can lead to a long-term relationship and more lucrative contracts. When you connect gig workers, you are introducing people for low-risk interactions, because there is relatively little money involved. They will build trust with one another over time, meaning you need to lend very little credibility to the initial exchange.
How will you use your super power?