In our post-Malcolm Gladwell, post-social media world, networking is one of the most revered skills in business. Across every white-collar profession, the gospel of networking holds forth the possibility of fast career advancement, access to new opportunities, new business, and personal brand extension. A solid, day-to-day commitment to networking – whether online or in person – is supposed to separate the junior employees and middle managers from the leaders. We at Argentus trumpet the benefits of networking all the time. We recognize that building a great professional network can really boost your career, acting as the nitro in your gas tank that can open up opportunities that otherwise might seem invisible.
Let’s face it, though: most people are afraid of networking. Putting yourself out there in a business context can often feel transactional, like you’re “taking” without necessarily giving anything in return. It’s something we all have to get past, but it’s true. A fear of networking is real. So if you fall into this camp, you might get a kick out of an interesting New York Times column this week – one that raises an interesting question that flies in the face of networking’s supreme place in today’s business world:
Is Networking Overrated?
The Op-Ed, written by Wharton School professor and career expert Adam Grant, challenges the gospel of networking by offering examples and studies from a wide variety of business contexts, all of which converge on a simple message: your abilities first, and your network second. Although the adage is “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” achievements tend to attract and sustain a better network than simply reaching out to people to create relationships. If you build it, they will come.
Grant offers a number of examples of artists and businesspeople who created great work, put it out there, and built their networks (some would call it “getting discovered”) organically. Conversely, he gives examples of young professionals he’s taught who reached out to influencers / highly-successful people in their industries, only to have those relationships burn up on the runway because they didn’t have any concrete ideas or accomplishments to point to. The relationship was for relationship’s sake, and thus had no real basis for existing. So despite all the hoopla about how important it is to network like mad in the early stages of your career, despite the best intentions of junior professionals reaching out to CEOs and VPs for networking without truly expecting any immediate return, those relationships don’t always pan out in a productive way. In Grant’s words, “Networking alone leads to empty transactions, not rich relationships.”
His basic advice isn’t that networking is evil, or manipulative, or even counterproductive. It’s just that you’re better off putting your energy towards getting really good at what you do than getting to know everybody in your field. Towards showing accomplishments in your career, and developing interesting insights about how to do things differently. As Grant puts it, “achievements show you have something to give, not just something to take.” It’s good advice. But is it really good to forego networking completely, before you have major accomplishments to point to?
Not really. As recruiters in a highly specialized area (Supply Chain and Procurement), we at Argentus take networking seriously. It’s led to huge opportunities for us, and for our candidates. We make it our business to reach out to a diverse range of professionals from all across our industry, even if we don’t have any immediate opportunities for them, and even if we don’t want to develop business with them. In fact, doing that is our business. We’ve had great candidates and clients come to us because of relationships we’ve built years ago. We’ve talked to candidates who have come into huge opportunities, who have learned valuable skills and best practices, but who also just enjoy their careers more because of what networking provides.
That being said, Grant raises some great points. Networking isn’t a magic pill for your career, and it shouldn’t be your sole focus before you’re established, because he’s right. If you’re looking to create relationships in business, you should be able to offer some value to those senior leaders who you seek out as a mentor. Your ability to form a killer network should be a supplement to your skills. It should be a background skill you develop in concert with your core abilities. Reach out to other people in your industry to talk to them about what they’re seeing in the marketplace. Ask them about best practices. Attend industry events to meet people and learn from them. Learn to treat it exercise: a difficult chore that becomes more fun and easy the more you do it. Investing in these skills early on will pay huge dividends when you do have big accomplishments to show off.
So if you hate networking but still want to climb in your career, we’re afraid that – despite the great points Adam Grant raises in his Op-Ed – you’re not off the hook.
But what do you think? Is networking overrated, underrated, or properly rated? Let us know in the comments!