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Redefining Professional Networking

If just hearing the phrase “networking event” makes you shudder, it’s time to throw all that generic advice from your college’s career counseling center out the window: 

“Build relationships with recruiters.”

“Go to career fairs.”

“Find job boards and send out applications to any and every company you see.”

Sound familiar?  

According to Parker Dewey, “the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 55.3% of recent college graduates will leave their first job within the first year.” Right now, the challenge of finding employment extends beyond mere preference, as we face down the worst recession since the Great Depression. 

The Atlantic notes the unprecedented challenges 2020 graduates face the following: 

“By the end of the current academic year, American schools will have conferred an estimated 3.7 million high-school diplomas, 1 million associate’s degrees, and 2 million bachelor’s degrees. Many of those 6-million-plus graduates will soon pursue another degree, but many others will enter a historically terrible labor market, and one that’s especially brutal for young workers.” 

Throw Outdated Networking Rules Out the Window

The current economy and job market are unlike anything we’ve seen in this lifetime, so it’s time to stop “following the rules” that don’t apply anymore and try something new. Job seekers need to be agile, adaptive, and resilient.

How many times have you been in this same scenario? 

You go to a local networking event to meet people, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and checking off an item on your to-do list. 

In our current COVID era, this probably looks more like joining a Zoom call to learn something new. In your personal life, maybe you’re going to a “singles event” to meet new people through a fun activity.

What This Looks Like In Real Life Networking:

Recently, I’ve had countless conversations with young and even mid-career professionals that echo the same refrain. 

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say the same things:

“I’m not on the right path and in the right job”

“I keep bouncing from job to job, and none of them feel right”

“I don’t know where to even start looking as a college student” 

The biggest gap I’ve been noticing is how few of these people are being intentional about building the right relationships.

Exhibit A: In a coffee shop in January 2020, I remember one conversation with a guy who mentioned that he just showed up to events in one specific focus area. It felt like a task he had to do. He wanted to meet new people, but mostly he wanted to feel like he was being productive and doing something beneficial for his career. 

What did he walk away with? Nothing more than another item checked off on his to-do list; no real relationships built, nor meaningful and impactful conversations held. 

Core Principles of Redefining Professional Networking

Going in blind might seem like the only option, but there’s so much more to gain if you come in prepared with the right mindset. 

Empty small talk and robotic resume recaps are not what motivated professionals find worthwhile. They’re also not going to get you the real connections you crave. How do you get a better sense of the core archetypes of other people attending?

After spending years wondering about how to make intentional relationships that serve my career and goals, I realized I could redefine this entire process. Shifting my perspective and strategy involves 8 core principles I stick to in each area of my life:

1. Start Intentionally with Self Discovery 

2. Shift From a Mindset of Transaction to Synergy

3. Be Intentional About Relationships in Every Aspect of Life

4. Create “Personal Personas” of Who I Want to Meet

5. Show Up in the Right Neighborhoods

6. Stay Open to Ideas that Challenge Your Own

7.  Find Strengths to Distill From Your Network

8. Find True Alignment 

1. Spark Deeper Connections With Self-Discovery

The most important question is asking yourself “Why am I showing up, and what types of people do I want to meet?” and “What’s my desired outcome for this relationship I want to build?” 

Even more importantly, we must know who we are and what we have to offer if we want to build relationships right.

Begin by asking yourself this set of pathfinding questions:

(These are internally focused on you and what YOU want)

  • What are my goals?
  • How does achieving these goals help me along for my long-term plans?

After investing the time and effort into your process of self-discovery, you’ll have a clearer sense of both what you have to offer to the world and what to pursue in the world. 

Equipped with this high-level understanding of yourself, it becomes so much easier to find people with a different wheelhouse prior to what you have known in the past. 

Self-discovery will guide you towards the right people to connect with. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing several people on my podcasts whose stories emphasize the truth of this phenomenon. Check out our podcast page– notice how many titles involve a mentor, teacher, or life-changing connection?  

The best people to have in your life are the ones who can help you make the hard decisions to step out and be your full self. 

2. Shift From Transactional (or attraction!) to Synergy

After you’ve established a solid foundation of self-knowledge, remind yourselves that relationships are a two-way street. It’s not all about you, but knowing yourself better and what you want will help you find like minded people. 

Apply this same thoughtful, intentional approach to really getting to know the people you meet and learning what they’re looking for and what makes them tick. 

A. For Your Professional Self

Professional networking can be so much more than going through the motions of exchanging business cards. Guess what? This whole process doesn’t have to be limited to when you or someone else needs a job. 

A big reason the idea leaves a bad taste in so many people’s mouth is because hiring-centric “networking” inherently involves rejection or disappointment sometimes. 

Generally speaking, we’re taught to consider networking as a transactional process. Most of the time, it’s about getting a job offer or finding a candidate your company needs to fill a role.  

What if, instead, the entire dynamic of networking shifted to focus on synergy? Rather than an exchange where some people benefit and others walk home empty-handed, think of this process as a collaboration.

Networking is about bringing together ideas and opportunities. Even if that person you’re chatting with isn’t going to be your new boss or latest hire, everyone you meet has something to teach you. 

Change your approach from “I want to meet the perfect candidate,” or, “I want this interaction to end in a job offer.” Instead, consider the value you can create for the person you’re talking to. You might be surprised by what comes back in return.

B. For Your Personal Self, as a Potential Partner

This same process of self-discovery applies to dating, too – both on and off the apps. If you want to find a partner who’s right for you, take a more targeted approach than swiping mindlessly or hitting on the prettiest girl at the bar. It’s easy to fall into the trap of just going after people you find attractive, but no one wants to be thought of as a shiny new toy.

Ask yourself about what you value. Think about your long-term dreams. What type of person would they excite just as much as you?

It’s not all about you, either. A partnership is two people of equal value. Find someone whose vision thrills you, too.

This may sound harsh, but the truth is that most people don’t know why they’re building specific relationships. Relationships tend to just sort of happen to people, instead of being actively and mutually built with intention.

When you embark on your next relationship, whether that’s in your career or more personal life, do it intentionally. Set long-term goals, communicate them openly and honestly, and really listen when the other person tells you what they want, too. Seek out someone whose values reflect yours, and who has similar aspirations and passions. 

3. Create “Personal Personas”  

Just like with networking, start this process off by answering these three questions:

  1. What types of people give you a genuine sense of alignment?  
  2. Who has similar goals as you?
  3. Who can help achieve them?

Make a list of these individuals and envision them. What does each of these people look like?

When you meet new people, doing your research on the front end makes it much easier to identify they’re a better fit than figuring it out as you go.

Here are some basic questions to answer first:

  • Where do they hang out? 
  • Which events are they hosting/attend?

What’s important here is these goals start from the inside out versus the outside in.

Take a look in the mirror and really ask yourself what types of people you need to meet. Don’t just scroll through Meetup.com or a professional networking site, and pick someone who looks powerful or “useful” to you. These are people, after all!

Instead, think about the type of people you want to attract based on your mutual goals and needs.

4. Show up in the Right Neighborhoods

Once you have these basic archetypes, find out where these people would hang out. As you consider how to plan your networking strategy, go to those types of events. Once you’re there, take care to reach out to the right people.

For example, if your goal is to start a business in the next couple of years, what are the things you need to do to be successful? 

Scenario 1: Building an Entrepreneurial Community or Support Group

Okay, where do these people hang out, and what types of entrepreneurs are a good fit for me to meet? What LinkedIn communities or virtual events would attract them? Think about these tailored sets of questions for the following scenarios:

Scenario 2: Learn How to Develop a Product or Service

  • Who has developed a product or service in my area before and who can help guide me along my journey?
  • Where do they hang out? 
  •  Where can I meet them?

Scenario 3: Learn Branding, Marketing, or How to Build a Website

  • I know I need to get a website off the ground, but where do I even start?
  • What partners can help me?

Scenario 4: Get the Important Insights on the Right App 

If you start with the end in mind from the beginning, you can be intentional about your actions and find the right people without aimlessly wandering/searching. It takes a lot of foresight and proactiveness to find the right community.

Professional Networking and Dating Have More in Common Than You’d Think

Let’s extend this idea to dating, just for the heck of it. When you look at an app like Tinder, it doesn’t give you many clues. It’s mostly based on attraction and swiping. 

An app like Hinge, on the other hand, provides more qualitative insights and useful information on the person. As TechCrunch reported back in 2018, Hinge was the first dating app to take a data-driven approach to measure its success rate: 

“With a new feature called “We Met,” Hinge will ask users a few days after they shared their phone numbers if they went on a date, and, if so, if they’d want to see that person again. This data will be used as a signal to inform Hinge’s algorithms and improve matches, if the user later returns to the app. During beta trials, Hinge says that 90% of members said their first dates were great, and 72% said they wanted to go on a second.”

By including a richer array of both media and information, Hinge ensures deeper connections that extend beyond physical attraction, which brings alignment closer into reach. If you want to stand out from the crowd, take a thoughtful, in-depth approach to how you present yourself, whether in a dating or professional scenario.

5. Find True Alignment When Networking

If you’re clear on what you’re looking for, you can look past “attraction” to whether this person aligns internally. Looking for a more intentional relationship that’s a better fit from the beginning? Ask yourself the hard questions first. Be intentional about where you show up. Actively decide to spend your time in accordance with the people you want to meet.

  • What’s your desired outcome? 
  • What is theirs?

This might sound manipulative, but it’s not. If you have the right outcome in mind, you can reverse engineer and systematize your results.

What This Looks Like In Real Life:

Scenario 1 & Potential Outcome:  Find an Accomplished Mentor

Let’s say you’re looking for a mentor; someone accomplished in your field.

You’d approach the relationship with a lot of gratitude and appreciation, right? Here’s how I do it:

  • Come prepared with questions and research based on this person’s past experience
  • Really try to build a relationship, instead of “closing a deal” or finalizing a transaction
  • If you have the financial resources, offer to pay for the meal or coffee if it’s a one-on-one meeting
  • Speak with clarity and confidence 
  • Explain where you need help and why
  • Try not to talk about yourself the whole time
  • Ask questions in a way that will make them want to help you

As you can see, the way I do it at least, it isn’t about going into a situation to ask for help or get something from them. It’s about showing up selflessly and intentionally, with genuine care about the other person. That’s how you build a real relationship.

Scenario 2 & Potential Outcome:  Show Up to an Event and Build 2 Real Relationships

Let’s say you’ve done your homework and figured out a couple of events where your “tribe” is more likely to hang out. Even more granularly, who within your intended tribe are you looking to meet, and why?

  • At the event, it’s your job to filter out the people in the room 
  • Find the 1-2 people you can build a real relationship with
  • Ask questions on the front end earlier
  • Start screening people better
  • Really try to see if this is the type of person you’re trying to attract in your life at a given time

This process is just like online dating. Think of it like “swiping” left or right, just in real time, and in person.

In any scenario, the most important part in this process is to make sure you’re actually showing up in the right “neighborhood.” 

Wherever you go, get there by being intentional, and know why you’re showing up. You’ll be so much better positioned to build a relationship based on the outcome you want.

7. Stay Inspired

Fresh perspectives and drastically different points of view aren’t going to come from the typical crowd you’re immersed in, because sharing the same environment tends to produce similar ideas. We spend the bulk of our day with coworkers. Even the most innovative companies can turn into an echo chamber pretty fast. 

How can you stay continually inspired? Surround yourself with the best and brightest minds from every walk of life. No one works well in a silo, even one that seems perfectly suited for them. Find people who are comfortable challenging you.  

Challenge yourself to find communities that put innovation at the forefront. If you can walk in with clear goals and an open mind, that’s where you’ll make the greatest impact. 

The synergy in our connections is where we grow and innovate to create truly new and unique and valuable contributions to the world.

8. Distill the Best Strengths From Your Network

If you want to be known for something, make sure the people around you have that same value system and care about it just as much as you do. 

Suddenly, I realized my tribe didn’t always have to be a sports team. Maybe it could be a team of a different type. Even though I spent so much time in that community, I realized I didn’t have to stay in it my whole life. 

I knew I could find other groups that felt more “right.” This doesn’t mean they were “better” or “worse” objectively. These groups were just better for me – the real Bryan, the person I’ve put so much blood, sweat, and tears into getting to know. 

If you want the same for yourself, look for the groups that best represent you. You don’t have to accept that name-brand job offer. Maybe that riskier startup gig is the opportunity that’s been waiting for you, where you’ll have mentors who invest in you for life.

Choose Your own Path

I think the world would be a much less lonely place if we took back control of our actions. It’s not scrolling that makes us lonely. It’s not Netflix that makes us bored. We tend to feel”off the tracks” sometimes when we don’t have the right people in our life to support us on our journey.

Introspection helps us understand how to build relationships right. Think long-term and be aspirational about your goals and partnerships alike. Being intentional about who you spend your time with is the key to leading a more fulfilling life.

Sometimes, this feeling of emptiness comes from not really knowing what we’re doing, or why what’s at the root of our choices. Understanding the “why” behind our actions will put the right people in our lives to help us get where we want to go. 

Once you’ve found your tribe, you can put in the right systems and communication techniques to achieve your desired outcomes- as a team, as a partner, and most importantly, together.

For Thought Leaders
Bryan Wish

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