Networking that works


Does everyone keep telling you that the key to a successful career is to have great networks?

Well, I hate to be the one to say it again, but it’s true. Having great networks makes working life – and research life in particular – much, much easier and more fun.

Where I diverge from much of the common rhetoric, however, is that I’m not a proponent of elevator pitches, speed-dating formats, or indeed networking events overall.

There are as many myths about networking circulating as there are gurus who will tell you that must network, network, NETWORK (at that $1000-a-table gig they are organising…).

I hate networking events. In fact, I’ve managed to dodge most badged networking events in my career thus far. I even avoid conference dinners at conferences I have convened – usually by not scheduling a conference dinner.

Is all this because I’m actually that anti-social?

Well, sometimes it is (yeah, I’m that person), but mostly it’s because I’m not a fan of events that foreground their raison d’etre as getting people to network. Because it’s the worst way to get people to network, and not a lot of networking actually happens at these networking events.

Don’t believe me because you think I’m incredibly biased against networking gigs? That’s cool, because I’m not the one who said it (as much as I wanted to)! Many others have, and the Harvard Business Review‘s David Burkus even tells you to skip that networking event:

The problem with networking events is that there’s no bigger purpose other than just having conversations with people, and without that bigger purpose — without that high-stakes activity — there’s little incentive to move beyond conversations that make us comfortable. When the stakes are higher, however, we end up needing more than what existing contacts and similar-seeming people can provide. So, we push further to meet more diverse people.

Further, Burkus states that “your most valuable contacts are actually the people you already know” (Networking myths dispelled). Burkus’ take on the networking palaver makes a lot of sense to me. I am exactly that person who takes on projects and gets involved with things for a bigger purpose. In many cases, these activities lead to other things because working side by side with someone gives you an excellent window into what that person would be like as a research collaborator, mentor or mentee, or if they are someone you would recommend for stuff later (e.g. as a job applicant, consultant, guest speaker). You get to see how they deal with others, their modes of communicating, and the way their work practices may align with yours. These days, I do most of my networking through social media channels or other ‘softer’ modes – never at networking events.

Overall, I think my networks are good: strong where they need to be, with a healthy spread of weak ties across many academic communities. I’ve been in positions in the course of my career where I’ve created opportunities and been approached to recommend people for opportunities.

So, let me know flip things around a bit. The coveted end-point of all this networking for researchers is to be known enough to be recommended to others, and be approached for career and scholarly opportunities. I thought it’d be interesting for someone like me, who’s not a typical networker or big socialiser, to reflect on what would prompt me to recommend someone for an opportunity. What kind of experience would I need to have had with that person? What is the vibe I’d need to be getting from them?

Rarely is it a single personality trait that stands alone – usually, it’s a blend of personality and expertise, and what I know of the way a person works. This latter point is the hardest to ascertain and the strongest motivator for me to recommend. As with most people, I am super-happy to recommend people I know will do a good job. Recommendations reflect on my ability to make good judgements and this, in turn, builds my reputation as someone who can be trusted and whose opinion is worth something.

Below is my short list of three reasons why you’d float to the top of my recommendation list.

Authentic manner

I know when someone’s working a crowd, doing that glad-handing thing. This is true whether we’re talking a physical room or on a social channel. I find no value in being part of that audience. I don’t know what that person thinks they’re getting from the glad-handing, but I know I’m getting nothing but irritation. I have consultants who approach me for work with my institution all the time. Their manner counts for all – do I feel they’re trying to ‘sell’ me something? Do they really get what our work is about? Can they see why we might be sceptical of their offerings (and how do they deal with that)?

Don’t pretend to be something/someone you’re not. Approach honestly. Be genuine. Don’t over-promise. It counts when you’re dealing with someone like me. A lot.

Smart, not smug

There’s confidence and there’s arrogance. They aren’t the same thing. I love confident, smart people who listen well, are willing to learn, and admit mistakes. For me, people who act like they know all the things and are always right (that is, arrogant) are kryptonite. For me, it often feels like an extended, somewhat tedious performance that no-one really wants to watch. I know I don’t.

I would never recommend someone I thought had smug vibes.

Get things done

A big part of why I’d recommend someone for a role or project is because I know they are doers. They’re folks I know who follow through, or keep in touch and communicate about delays/derailments. I see them coming up with fabulous ideas and seeing these through to getting people together, landing funding, publishing in some form, or motivating others to act. It’s not that they’re doing 100 things at once – that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s that they take things on, are accountable for that task’s responsibilities, and create good outcomes from whatever it is.

With these three aspects, I’d recommend people if I knew of these traits directly or indirectly. Granted, there are only a handful of people whose judgement I trust enough to take their word to recommend someone I’ve never met or worked with. But it’s often the case that I’ll recommend someone or an organisation I may know a bit through Twitter or Facebook, about whom others I trust wax lyrical.

Executive summary: be real, be smart and not annoying, make things happen.

That’s it. Network away!