Few activities and skills are more critical to the communication professional than networking.
On an individual level, networking skills are not simply critical to improving one’s career prospects, they are a fundamental part of any communication role itself—the collection and validation of information, the socialization and approval of messages and images, and the way in which those messages and images are distributed and amplified.
On a collective level, our approach towards networking among ourselves and with our business colleagues determines what integrates us as a “tribe” and potentially accelerates the extent to which our contribution is seen as strategic and value-adding by the people who employ us.
Most books I’ve encountered about networking address individual networking, focused mainly on job seekers and entrepreneurs, and emphasize the collection of new contacts. Lin McDevitt-Pugh, in her short but brilliant “So You Think You Can’t Network” shifts the focus away from “collection” into the realm of “connection” – building a spread of two-way relationships based in conversation and mutual interest, and then facilitating their integration a dynamic and multi-dimensional network.
Indeed, by inverting a traditional approach where a first encounter is seen mainly as an opportunity for a one-way sales pitch into one where it yields a short but intimate discussion of each person’s needs, ambitions, current activities and core values—a conversation not only enables both people arrive at a sense of whether they want to help each other, but also to think about whom else in their networks can be of support and assistance.
In moving networking conversations from the transactional to the transformational, Lin’s approach has the potential to change the terms of the whole networking experience.
Lin, who is a long-time friend and co-conspirator of mine, an Australian expat in the Netherlands with a long record in international social activism, does not mince words when criticizing the “networking industry” and its most common bits of advice, like focusing on starting conversations with people you don’t know at “networking” events like receptions and conference breaks. Indeed, she basically says that the point of the “networking industry” is to increase the level of frustration with networking to stimulate a steady demand for additional events and support materials.
Lin asserts that the focus of traditional networking on individual transactional encounters also obscures the vast majority of the power that becomes available when individual networks connect into something broader. Indeed, she provides a lean but comprehensive discussion of how networks actually work in the broader sense when they become integrated, especially how they enable access to far greater pools of knowledge and arenas of opportunity.
She explores the “strength of weak ties”. This idea, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in the Tipping Point, explains how much of the power of networking comes from being able to ask people one knows, but not particularly well, for support or assistance with a particular task, like job hunting or finding resources for a project. These “weak ties” are often able to provide connections with resources, Lin explains, because they know enough to be supportive of you, and because they will inevitably know people who are potentially interested who you don’t know. Indeed, it is the weak ties that enable the connecting of core individual networks into something bigger, richer and more dynamic.
Ultimately, Lin says, networking, when done well has real power because it is what enables us to do what we cannot do alone, and the extent to which people are willing to see this as their starting point for engaging people in their network is a key factor both in the value they gain and the contribution they make. In turn, their willingness to ask for what they need and to ask for what their partners need, also becomes the engine which drives speed, results and opportunities for the benefit of all.
Which is why I recommend this book—not just because I see it as being helpful to individual readers, but because it would be great to have Lin’s revolutionary approach to networking become commonly practiced by business communicators within our companies and within our overall community—ideally, to become our common operating system for engaging each other and our connections in the broader world, accelerating the flow of ideas and opportunities between us.