Pallavi Pinakin analyses the impact of networking on career improvement

Networking almost always evokes strong emotions among professionals. Some people swear by it while others despise it. If you network continually and superficially, you may end up with a stack of business cards but little else. And if you avoid networking entirely, you may end up with a stagnant learning curve and career.

In a recent experiment, scientists found that people tend to associate networking with feeling dirty – sometimes quite literally! One reason for this is the entry of relentless ‘promoters’ into professional networking circles – they try to sell something to you the minute you meet; and they bombard you with an unwelcome sales pitch and follow-up spam.

The other reason is that people view networking as inherently transactional – meeting someone simply to get something out of them seems manipulative and shallow.

But that’s a rather narrow view of networking. Advocates of networking will tell you that there’s much more to it than that.

It’s about engagement and knowledge sharing; it’s about building mutually rewarding relationships beyond your organisation – in or even beyond your industry; and it’s about people who are grappling with the same challenges or with whom you can exchange fresh perspectives.

To be truly effective, networking needs to be purpose driven and long term. If you approach it unthinkingly or looking for an instant payoff, you’ll come away disappointed more often than not. Here are a few suggestions to help you establish and grow a robust professional network for years to come.

YOUR GOAL If you think of networking purely in terms of what you can get out of it, it could be seen as selfish. But if you broaden your perspective to include others, it instantly becomes more appealing.

How can your efforts benefit the team and company, and even an industry? Can you use this activity to support your colleagues and peers? Keep in mind that most people are at their best when they’re working towards reaching a higher goal.

YOUR OFFER It is essential to identify what you’re bringing to the table; not only what others can give you. Not only does this increase your level of comfort with networking, it also helps build relationships with different professionals. Think specifically about what value you could offer a colleague, a newcomer or an adviser.

Even if you don’t have too much authority or influence, you do have something to offer. Be creative and consider things from the other person’s point of view. A busy manager could welcome an enlightening article on new industry trends. An older person might be able to use a millennial’s knowledge of evolving technologies. Even a simple ‘thank you’ has value – for example, a mentor would appreciate your sincere gratitude if you expressed it in a public setting because it could enhance his or her reputation.

BE GENEROUS When you’ve figured out what you are bringing to the table, start contributing. This doesn’t have to be grand or life changing – only meaningful and consistent. If you come through for people in your network when you don’t need a favour, you’ll have plenty of willing helpers when you do need one. Not to mention you’ll also earn a ton of goodwill too!

Experts agree that successful networking is a long-term activity. Don’t think of it in terms of weeks or even months. Approach these relationships in terms of years and even decades. A strong network can see you through a career that straddles multiple roles, organisations, cities and even countries. The secret is to do what you can, when you can, for other people over the long run.

SAYING ‘NO’ You don’t need to accept each and every invitation that comes your way. While it’s good to embrace networking, it is equally important to reject it at times. You may discover that you dislike specific events – maybe fancy cocktail parties stress you out or breakfast meetings don’t suit your circadian rhythm. Be comfortable about skipping these in favour of more appealing opportunities.

NEW MINDSET Despite all the positives mentioned above, you may still instinctively dislike the idea of networking. To get over this, you’ll need to alter your internal narrative and even ‘fake it till you make it.’ So the next time you’re invited to an event, resist the temptation to dwell on how much you hate networking, and what a dull and useless morning or evening it’s going to be.

Instead, tell yourself that networking offers a chance for discovery. You’ll meet interesting people with things to share. Fresh possibilities may arise… and you may even end up enjoying yourself!

Going in with this mindset helps you to be more open and authentic as you network, which increases your chances of having fun and being productive. With practice, you’ll genuinely start looking forward to networking.