As an entrepreneur, I’m continually bombarded by the message that we have to network to get ahead. Make friends and influence people, they say. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The faster you can spin yourself round a networking event, the better. You should sling out business cards with the attitude of a smoke-machine operator at a Megadeath concert.
I’m not so sure.
I used to be a networker. I was called one of the top fifty networked people in the UK, for all the good that it did me.
Yet I didn’t feel as though my network was particularly rich, or that I could actually ask many of my contacts for real help, unless they got something back in return. More of a ‘net of work’, given the need to stay in touch, rather than a valuable group of people.
I’ve always wondered when these highly networked people actually did something. Many claimed to be ‘entrepreneurs’, but as far as I could tell, none ever did anything other than becoming experts at knowing who was doing what and which events were most likely to serve palatable booze.
Here’s my improved guide – as usual based on the latest facts and scientific methodology… otherwise known as ‘Simpletom’s vague intuition’:
- If in doubt, don’t go to the event.
- Better to meet one person properly than twenty improperly.
- If you have to pay to attend, triple the cost of the event (which might roughly be the value of your time used up), then determine whether it is still worth going.
- Don’t just try to get things from the other person, like a card or a contract. Be human.
- Speak the truth, rather than what people want to hear.
- If you feel uncomfortable, don’t ignore the discomfort, and barrel in and meet people anyway, as most networkers would have you do – realize the discomfort is because something isn’t right.
- Meet people through personal or one-to-one connections, rather than trying to find useful people in the lucky-dip of conferences.
I love meeting those business people, often the most successful, who focus on getting things done, rather than meeting as many people as possible in the hope that it might help them get something done in the future.
My sense is that the more you enjoy what you’re doing, the more you simplify your work and your life to focus on what is more important, and the more you reduce the clutter, both physical and in terms of your ‘activities’ – then the richer the connections you make. Better to have ten people you know well and who can vouch for you, than hundreds who know of you and have seen you on the circuit.
From a business perspective, there definitely is value in networking. I’ve managed to win a few wonderful contracts by pressing the flesh. But what about the time wasted? Is it worth it?
I’ve been to many international development conferences, normally on climate change, in some hugely inaccessible part of the world like New Zealand, only to be met by a group of the same practitioners that I saw in Washington DC a month earlier.
Do we need to see one another on the other side of the world, and thousands of carbon ‘miscredits’ later, to go drinking together merely to remind one another that we’re working on climate change? If we spent more time, at home, reading, ringing people and actually doing the work we’d set out to do, would we achieve more than zooming around expensive conference halls and eating coelacanth sashimi when at a marine conservation conference?
People’s networks have become so wide, so international and are spread across so many platforms that almost all their contacts are weak, or useless. It’s often neither what you know, nor who you know, but how well you know.