- Will networking help you build a successful career? I’ve never been sure.
- Mostly, traditional networking seems to me like it takes a lot of time and effort.
- Some experts say building connections is a practical strategy, in case you ever lose your job.
- Other experts say you’re better off working and developing concrete skills than schmoozing.
A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers at Business Insider created a Slack channel called #lunch-buddy. Anyone who joined the channel would be randomly paired with another BI employee; the two would then meet for lunch, or coffee, or maybe just a walk, and get to know each other.
This initiative seemed to me a brilliant idea. Generally speaking, my coworkers are lovely people, but I know only a sliver personally. And when it comes to employees in other departments – say, product or finance – I’m curious to know what they do all day because, as it stands, I have no clue. (I imagine the feeling is mutual.)
I typed “#lunch-buddy” into the Slack search bar. And then I closed out of it. It was a Monday morning and, already, I was behind on work. I imagined that, by the time my buddy and I arranged to meet up, I’d be even farther behind. Inevitably, I’d wind up nibbling nervously on a sandwich while sneaking glances at my phone to make sure no one was Slacking me. This buddy business was not going to work out, at least not for me.
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I should mention that, when the email about the lunch-buddy program went out, I was in the middle of reporting a story about networking. My specific goal was to figure out whether networking was good for your career, as so many influencers would have it, or bad. Good because you meet interesting new people who can introduce you to interesting new job opportunities, clients, and projects. Bad because you spend so much time schmoozing that you forget to, you know, work.
I wasn’t sure where I stood on the subject. As the lunch-buddy incident had made clear, I theoretically supported networking, but wasn’t very adept at practicing it. On LinkedIn, I posed the question to my connections. Unsurprisingly for a networking website, several people who commented said their relationships had always benefited them in their career.
And maybe they’d benefited mine, too. A few years ago, I was looking for a new job and mentioned as much to an old coworker (who’d become a friend) when we got together for drinks. Days later, she emailed me a Business Insider job posting that I’d missed in my search and, well, the rest is history.
Does that count as networking? I’m not sure. I like to think it’s better defined as being a human being with human friends who are willing to help you out.
Some experts say networking before you’re out of a job is a very practical strategy
In my quest for answers, I called Dorie Clark, a marketing and strategy consultant and a prolific author, who took a moment to hammer home the importance of networking for someone in my line of work. For practical purposes, Clark said, I should be having lunch with a journalist from a different media outlet every single week. In the event that I’m ever a laid off (something that happened to Clark several decades ago), she said, I’ll want to know people besides my coworkers here.
OK, so that’s not such a bad idea. Still, I couldn’t help but think back to a 2017 New York Times op-ed by Wharton psychologist Adam Grant, in which he debunked the myth that networking will propel you to success. Instead, Grant wrote, producing actual good work will get you noticed and get you where you want to go.
Maybe the solution is to do both. Be the best journalist you can be and take other journalists to lunch while you’re at it. Except, ugh. I don’t want to take other journalists to lunch. Can’t I enjoy a sandwich in peace? I’m hardly antisocial, but I’m (relatively) busy and I’m tired and reading another journalist’s entire archive so as not to look like a fool just feels like another assignment.
For this, Karen Wickre has a solution. Wickre was the editorial director at Twitter; before that she worked at Google; and now she’s published a book titled “Taking the Work Out of Networking.” Wickre’s networking strategies for introverts like her include emailing acquaintances links to articles they might be interested in, to keep up the relationship. Or, you can “like” and comment on other people’s social-media posts.
Wickre has achieved a certain level of professional success, so it seems like a no-brainer to take her career advice. And yet. The 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson was a total – total! – recluse and here we are still quoting her today.
Other experts say you’re better off working than schmoozing
Even some people who live and work in the modern world think socialising is hardly a career boon.
Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of multiple books, has said he doesn’t really engage with fans on social media because the costs – i.e. getting distracted and losing time when he could be researching or writing – outweigh the benefits – i.e. promoting his work. Actor and investor Jared Leto has said he doesn’t “do” networking lunches because he “just f—ing works.”
Lest you think I’m a Grinch, I’ll have you know that I’m perfectly happy to oblige when I think networking will help someone else. This winter I agreed to participate in a BI program that pairs more seasoned employees with someone new to the company so the newbie can learn the ropes. As my buddy and I chatted and walked to a cafe a few blocks away, it became clear that our families go to the same synagogue and our mothers are friends, which is to say that my one genuine attempt to network had resulted in meeting someone I already knew. Obviously.
One day, my feelings may change. Maybe I’ll be out of a job; maybe I’ll be promoting a book; maybe I’ll be lonely. And then it will be full steam ahead into future-of-media conferences and college alumni happy hours and catch-up coffees. But for now, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. Let’s (not) get lunch and I’ll tell you all about it.
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