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‘Does Networking Have to Be Slimy?’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I’m a college student, so I’m very early in my professional career, but so far I’ve already had trouble overcoming my aversion/distaste/ineptitude for networking. I’ve only done one summer internship, but I’m always hearing that the only real way to get jobs and find success professionally is through “networking” — a challenge for me, someone who often does poorly in overly performative social situations. I have a hard time reaching out to professors for this kind of thing as well.

Not only do I find myself feeling as though I’m not taking proper advantage of networking opportunities, I have a real distaste for the concept. The idea that I need to make and maintain social connections with people I don’t actually like in the hope of using them for professional gain at some point in the future feels overly invasive and frustrating. I want to make friends at work, but I don’t want to be constantly trying to charm the most advantageous social connection in my vicinity. I know I’m being stubborn about this, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something slimy, or that I’m just not coming off well to the people I think I should be trying to schmooze. 

How do I successfully network without feeling like I’m doing something snake-like?

Ugh, networking. A lot of people feel like you do — that it’s somehow phony or manipulative or smarmy.

Some of this might be because you’ve seen bad networkers who truly are smarmy — people oozing self-importance who invade your space with business cards in hand, deliver an unsolicited pitch about their work, and use your name weirdly often in a transparent attempt to establish rapport, or people who make it clear they’re only being friendly to you because they want an introduction to your boss.

But if you’re doing it well, networking shouldn’t be about being pushy or sucking up to people or calculating how they could help you in the future. It should just be about broadening the circle of people who you’re genuinely interested in knowing. And if you’re thinking “well, I’m not genuinely interested in getting to know random strangers,” that’s the wrong way to look at it. Instead, look at it as “my work brings me into contact with people who probably have similar interests to my own, and in many cases it will be interesting to get to know them better.”

It might sound cheesy, but truly, networking is just about making genuine connections with people. So you don’t need to do it with people you’re not genuinely interested in getting to know, but you’ll find it more fulfilling (and ultimately useful) if you’re open-minded about people and the commonalities you might share.

Once you’ve created a circle of people who you’re connected with — professionally or otherwise — then yes, that opens up possibilities for you both to be helpful and to seek help. But the whole thing will be far more palatable — and you’ll be better at it — if you don’t go in with that as your primary focus.

A bit about the “being helpful” piece of that: You might feel, as someone early in your career, that you don’t have anything to offer people who are more established than you, and you might wonder what they would get out of connecting with you at all. Don’t discount the value you can bring to a potential relationship by showing genuine interest in someone else and respect for their expertise. Lots of people get satisfaction out of being able to answer questions like “can you tell me about your experience as a woman in this field?” or “what are the best industry publications for me to read?” or “is Company X really family-friendly?” (Note, of course, that those questions are very different from “can you help me find a job?” The relationship might eventually get strong enough to ask for that kind of help, but that’s not where you start.)

In other words, you don’t have to be able to offer people job leads or new business to get them to talk to you. But good networkers do generally know that the relationship could end up benefiting them somewhere down the line in ways that aren’t obvious right now. Who knows, they might be able to recommend you to someone in their network who’s looking for your skill set, or get your help on a project down the road, or even turn to you for advice one day. Those sorts of things aren’t an immediate quid pro quo, but they are useful … and it’s not an inherently icky thing for relationships to be mutually beneficial.

So, how do you actually make all this happen? A lot of it is about putting yourself in places where it can happen, and just being open to talking to people. A huge amount of networking and relationship-building happens at conferences, so when you have the chance to go to even semi-relevant conferences, take it. If someone suggests coffee and you have time to go, go. Hang out in your field’s online forums and blogs, spend some time in field-relevant LinkedIn groups, and post and respond to people there.

Then, once you meet people, stay in touch. Congratulate them when LinkedIn announces they have a new job. Send a link to a TED Talk that references what you last spoke with them about. Ask their opinion about an idea you’re grappling with. (Don’t ask just for the sake of being in touch, because that can be disrespectful of a busy person’s time. Again, be genuine.) Do all this, and at whatever point you’re searching for your next job, you’ll have a network already in place that you can reach out to for help, and you won’t have to scramble to try to build contacts. And hopefully, you’ll have built relationships that are useful and rewarding in other ways, too.

That said, you don’t have to do any of this. You won’t become unemployable just because you choose not to focus on networking.
It’s not as obligatory a part of job searching as, for example, having a résumé is. But it can expand your options and make your professional life more interesting and fulfilling, and it can put you in a position to help other people. So before you write it off completely, it’s worth experimenting to see if there are at least pieces of networking that you find bearable and worthwhile.

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‘Does Networking Have to Be Slimy?’