Perhaps they should challenge the need to network
When in doubt, revisit the data. There is definitely data from a number of studies that shows that people with career success have a larger than average group of people with whom they have positive relationships. You can describe this as having a rich network of relationships; that is broader and deeper than the norm. Granovetter and others have shown that people gain jobs through people they know – especially people they don’t see on a regular basis.
Over the last decade, though, as this data became popular and discussed, the NOUN – ‘successful people have a rich and broad network’ – has shifted to become a VERB ‘you need to network to be successful’; or you need ‘to invest time in networking’.
This subtle shift in language has, in my view, been both misleading and damaging to people’s understanding of how to create success. The verb carries an implication that networking is an activity or set of behaviours done to create personal success. And yet the more I examine this, the less it fits my experience of successful people – and understanding how successful people act and work has been a key focus of professional interest for a long time.
In my experience, successful people do generally have a great, warm and deep network of relationships with people. But they very rarely achieved this by ‘networking’. I was struck recently by a conversation with a man who has a really great network of relationships that makes him extremely good at his job. I casually complimented him by saying “you’re the best networker I know!” – and his head lowered and his shoulders hunched. His body language showed very clearly that he had heard this before, and he absolutely hated being described in this way. Because he doesn’t relate at all to the verb ‘to network’. He focuses on developing relationships and being helpful. He likes people, is curious about them and spends time listening to them – and that allows him to spot how one person might be able to help another. By making introductions, he adds real value that leads to positive relationships.
How would it change things if we dropped the newly coined verb ‘to network’, and stuck with the original noun? I find it more authentic and helpful to tell talented people that in building a successful career, a key objective should be to end up with a rich network of warm relationships with a wide range of people. When you deconstruct the concept of ‘networking’, people experience a surge of released energy! Discussion can then focus on how to reach this desired endpoint. People enjoy exploring their personal style of building relationships, and whether they can use this to make wider relationships. We can discuss whether they feel guilty when they take time to do this, and the challenge of maintaining warm relationships with a lot of people.
Challenge the accepted wisdom that we need to push talented people ‘to network’! Instead, encourage them to value the investment of time in understanding and helping people, with no thought of return. Help them to be open in sharing their thoughts, needs and concerns, making it easy for friends to spot ways of helping them. Most people are energised by the idea of building a rich and dependable set of warm relationships.