Photo: Flickr/Alex decarvalho
Last month at SXSW Interactive, I ran into Dave McClure, one of the most influential angel investors on the planet.At a gathering like SXSW, many of the 15,000 attendees would like him to invest in their startups, and nearly all would like to meet him. So when I ran into him at a Hashable party, I decided to introduce myself. I planned to compose a sophisticated opener, but instead the words of a 17-year-old groupie came out: “You’re Dave McClure. YOU’RE a rockstar.” He glanced at me and walked away.
That, my friends, is how not to network.
Why do we network in the first place? There’s literature galore on this topic, including a notable piece by HBS professor Linda Hill and her colleague Kent Lineback on the importance of networking, whether for operational (getting things done day-to-day), developmental (furthering your career), or strategic (interacting with people on the horizons of your world that you don’t need right now, but may) purposes. Yet, if we distill the three reasons into one, we network because we need to get something done, now or in the future, and we can’t do it alone. This propels us to cast our net wider than we typically would, in search of new associations or repurposed old connections. Because reaching beyond our comfortable silo can be taxing, Insead professor Herminia Ibarra aptly wrote, networking is “work.”
Clearly there’s a way not to network, as my encounter at SXSW illustrates, but there is also a right way to network. Here are two of my guiding principles:
Reach out first to those with whom you have multiplex ties. In an interview, Monica Mullick Stallings states, from her research on network preferences that, “we have a measured preference for connecting with people with whom we have multiplex ties, or ties that involve an overlap of roles, or affiliations in a social relationship.” We are much more likely to network with those whom we also interact socially, for instance, because our children go to the same school, or because we occasionally train jointly for marathons, than if we simply work together. When we know a person in multiple contexts, there’s greater depth and richness to the relationship, and embedded within that, a higher degree of trust. This contrasts with instrumental ties, or a connection formed when our only interaction is professional. You and I work on a six-month consulting project, for example. If we don’t create additional ties during the project, when the project’s done, the relationship wanes.
Examine your strongest professional relationships. I suspect you will find that nearly all are with people where there is an overlap of work, civic, school, church, neighbourhood, and/or childhood ties. Certainly this is true for me, including how I came to be a founding partner at Rose Park Advisors. I had worked on a variety of volunteer projects with Clayton Christensen over several years, which led to an overlap of exchanges, including having several common acquaintances. When he and his son Matt decided to launch Rose Park, a nationwide search for a company president didn’t take place. They came straight to me. We had vetted one another in a variety of contexts, they knew my skills, and I theirs, resulting in an already high level of trust.
Contrast this with instrumental ties. As a sell-side analyst, I worked closely with a number of clients, becoming quite fond of them in the process. Try though we might, we have struggled to maintain contact over the years since I left Merrill Lynch. Or consider the instance in which one of the Limited Partners (LP) in our fund, a former CEO, recently introduced me to the private equity investor that held a large stake in his company, prior to its sale. He and I spoke at length, exchanging ideas, resolving to stay in touch. We both really meant to, but we haven’t. My interactions underscore Stallings’ findings: if we want to get something done, we are far more likely to galvanize others toward achieving that goal if we share multiplex ties.
Networking is a transaction. Much like a computer network is a collection of computers that facilitate communications and allow users to share data, we network to gain access to broader resources. The difficulty lies in the nature of the transaction: when we reach out to someone it’s because they have something we want. So the question is, what’s the trade? What do we have to offer? And as a corollary, if someone reaches out to us who doesn’t necessarily have anything that we want or need, can we find a way to make it an exchange anyway?
Going back to my experience at SXSW: I may want to talk to Dave McClure, but why would he want to talk to me? My “rockstar” comment certainly did not lead him to believe I had anything to offer him. But here is another SXSW example. After one of the sessions, I saw Gretchen Rubin, the author of the NY Times bestseller The Happiness Project. I said, “I know you. I follow you on Twitter, and you just started following me,” and introduced myself. As we chatted, it occurred to me I could introduce her to someone she wanted to know. She accepted graciously. On my side of the trade was a conversation with someone I admire. Our debut interaction may evolve into an instrumental tie, perhaps not. Having put in place a quid pro quo early on raises the odds.
The give-and-take of networking with people with whom you have multiple ties is a bit more complicated because the relationships are more complex. This makes it all the more important that we know beforehand what the trade will be; asking someone to do something for you just-to-be-nice can deplete your social capital quickly. One suggestion: when you ask for help and receive it, always ask what you might do for the giver, no matter how asymmetrical things may seem in your relationship. You may be surprised by what a person of “higher status” might need and you might provide.
What if you are the one helping someone, doing the favour, and the person doesn’t ask what they can do in return for you? Find a way to ask a favour from them within the next few weeks. It will likely be simple, not approaching the monetary value of what you have provided to them, but it propels into motion reciprocity, the idea of sharing and exchange. For example, when recent grads seek me out for advice, I almost always provide it and I don’t charge. But I do give them a chance to return the favour by asking them to leave a comment on this blog, or to retweet one of my tweets: a simple, very concrete request that is easy to deliver on immediately. Unlike The Godfather, very few of us can bank favours.
To get things done and be as effective as possible within our sphere, we need to network. While joining forces with people whom we know in multiple contexts can be complicated, the research suggests we are more likely to achieve our goals when we do. We may be loath to consider transactions or trades in the context of a relationship, but we will be far more effective when we remember the give-and-get rule. Networking is, in fact, a lot of work, but if we do it well, we can actually get something done.
Do you network? What are your guiding principles?
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