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Networking Doesn’t Suck. Our Mindset Does.

As humans, there are certain common aspects of existence that we are all supposed to dislike. Mother-in-laws, the Department of Motor Vehicles, final exams, root canals…and networking.

“I know I have to network to get a job, but it’s so hard.”

As a textbook introvert, I used to take these lamentations to mean that I must not be doing it right, because, well, I rather enjoyed “networking”. And that couldn’t be right, could it?

It took me a couple of years to realize that I needed to dig deeper into these claims that networking was hard, or that people hated it. When I did, I’d often discover that what people thought of as ‘networking’ was very different than what I thought it was.

The Debate

Over the last week or so, there’s been an online debate waged about what networking is, and whether it’s a valuable pursuit for one’s career. In one corner, we have Adam Grant, author, speaker and esteemed Wharton professor. He opened the exchange with his recent New York Times Op-ed: ‘Good News for Young Strivers: Networking is Overrated’. Grant’s case can be summed up nicely by this quote from his article:

“It’s true that networking can help you accomplish great things. But this obscures the opposite truth: Accomplishing great things helps you develop a network.”

A few days later a rebuttal appeared on LinkedIn, from renowned thinker, writer and Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, titled ‘Adam Grant on Networking is (Unintentionally) Misleading‘.  (That is cordial af. Someone please help these professors with their trash-talking).

“It’s Not Either Or. In paragraph 17, Grant notes that “accomplishments can build your network only if other people are aware of them” I would add that accomplishments can build your career and influence only if other people notice you–and building social relationships is one way to be sure you are noticed. So it’s not about doing good work or networking. Its about doing good work and being sure you have the contacts and personal brand to get noticed.”

As Pfeffer very reasonably notes “The empirical literature on networking and career success is both long-standing and extensive.”

A third party joined the fray a few days ago, when Kelly Hoey posted “Sorry Adam, To Network is To Strive” and noted that the behaviour Grant describes in the opening paragraphs of his column (young professionals ‘pitching’ to more established people they’ve managed to get in front of) is not, by her definition, real networking:

Networking is the sum total of everything we do. It is not the isolated schmoozing work-the-room-because-I-have-something-to-sell activity that is universally reviled. Networking is definitely not the activity to undertake in the moment of need or desperation (“I need a job” “I need Oprah to endorse my product” “I need a VC to fund me”). Those who are striving for success understand this. They continually build relationships, help others and connect in meaningful ways. They mentor. They seek advice. They follow-up. They offer help to others. They volunteer. They understand that to get ahead they need the help of other people — and to get that help you must both have something to offer and a track record of building relationships.”

The Debate Distilled

Grant makes some excellent points. He shares research that highlights how repugnant most people find self-promotion, and points out that “Networking alone leads to empty transactions, not rich relationships.” And yet, his assertion that ‘young strivers’ are best served by accomplishing something great, thus attracting the right people into our networks has some disturbing corollaries:

  • It suggests that people on the way to doing great things (a group many of us would like to think we belong to) don’t have anything of worth to offer until they have something (publicly validated?) to show for their efforts. Might those who have done great things not learn something from those with promise? Should these great achievers avoid people who are knowledgeable, curious, skeptical, challenging, but perhaps also young, disadvantaged, new to a field, or re-entering the work force?
  • Aside from the obvious social negatives that may result from this position, it also strikes me as reinforcing a misguided assumption that networking should be transactional, that it’s sole purpose is to get us this thing we want. This, in my opinion, is why so many people hate networking. This is why “Networking makes us feel dirty — to the point that one study found that people rate soap and toothpaste 19 percent more positively after imagining themselves angling to make professional contacts at a cocktail party”, as Grant points out in his Op-ed.
  • Finally, while I am personally deeply attracted to the idea that if I just put my head down and do great work that the world will notice and show up on my doorstep, the research does not bear this out. And it sounds way too much like the story that many women and minorities have historically been told in the workplace, often to their detriment. Unfortunately, our organizations are not just and rational places in which people’s performance and contribution is evaluated objectively on its merits, divorced from demographics and biases.

Pfeffer’s point that this isn’t an ‘either or’ situation is, of course, correct (and I don’t imagine that Grant would argue with it), and Hoey is on target when she equates a network to cultivating a community, and says:

“Your achievements only speak for part of who you are as a person: how you treat other people, and show up, day-in and day-out, equally matters (if not more). Achievements alone are a poor judge of character and a narrow measure of success.

No, networking is not over-rated. Rather, networking as relationship building is highly undervalued.”

She’s right. When we think of networking as being about ‘collecting’ the ‘right’ people into our LinkedIn connections we ignore the value inherent in other people, and in ourselves.

But there is still something more basic being overlooked here. A good network is not a genie in a bottle. Once you do the hard work to both build your own body of work and a strong network, you still can’t just make a wish and be granted what you desire from those contacts.

And even if you could, it’s probably not a good idea. The notion that there is one path for each of us through the career labyrinth to reach professional success and happiness, and that we need only find the right connections to give us access to it and avoid the other passages leading to failure is almost certainly wrong, and almost certainly limiting.

The people that ‘made it’ because of a connection or an opportunity from their network can never know what other opportunities may have turned up if they hadn’t found their way to the path they took. Perhaps things would have been even more glorious and rewarding than they are now. Likewise our perceived setbacks, our ‘zigs and zags’, almost inevitably contribute to a new path forward, and a new definition of the success we’d been striving for.

This is how life works. While a network is undoubtedly valuable, when we talk about it as though it’s the missing jigsaw piece to achieving our career goals, we overlook the fact that our idea of career success is probably hopelessly simplistic and mired in the present.

A strong network increases the opportunities in our vicinity, and may increase our luck, but only if we are open to deviating from our plan.

But You Still Hate Networking

Okay. So if we can agree that Grant and Pfeffer are both right – that one needs to do great work, and know great people, and that networking is more akin to cultivating a community, rather than collecting baseball cards or getting a magic wish granted, then maybe we can turn our attention to all the people who still think networking is sort of gross. Let’s revisit the notion that networking is transactional. If you will, indulge me in a tiny experiment:

Think about the last time you went to a (non-professional) social event and had a good time. Talked with people you knew and liked, met others for the first time, a few of which were pretty cool. Good conversation, heard about a new restaurant in your neighbourhood, and a bad movie you’ll now avoid. Good stuff.

Now imagine how you would have felt if, before the event, you told yourself “I must find a way to make important people at this event like me so that they will bestow favours and benefits upon me, otherwise my success is in question. They are standing between me and the life I want.”

Well? Did that fill you with joy? I’m guessing it felt unpleasant, stressful, threatening, dissonant with your values, and maybe even morally questionable.

This is how we tell people (directly or not) that they should approach networking. No wonder everyone hates it. This is why there are dozens of articles about networking that say things like: “Whether you like it not, you have to network”. This is why that guy was walking around your last conference handing out business cards like a robot. This is why students who still have two years of school (!) ask me “Who else in your network should I be connected with?” because their teacher read it on Forbes.

As Hoey says in her post, THIS IS NOT REAL NETWORKING!!!

The social event you had fun at? Not different from networking. The people you meet in your professional life? They’re people. You might like them. They might like you. Or not. Over time, some of them might become great contacts who call you for advice about a new project, talk you up to colleagues, or recommend you for a job. Some of them you will never see again. A couple may become friends.

In his book Barking Up The Wrong Tree, Eric Barker points out that:

“It’s good to know your neighbours. It’s good to make friends. But when it comes to friends in business, we use the awful word ‘networking’ and it really makes us feel icky. If you focus on making friends the problem goes away. It’s all abotu the perpective you take going in. We have this huge distinction between work and personal. Guess what? Your brain doesn’t.”

Barker points out that our ancient ancestors lived in small groups where they knew everybody. The distinction that we have come to accept between work and personal is relatively new, and from a brain perspective, arbitrary. He quotes author Yuval Noah Harari’s assertion that a major reason for our species success is our ability to collaborate, in part due to a new category of fellow humans we created beyond our immediate family, a phenomenon known as “fictive kinship”. Essentially, we’ve allowed ourselves to extend the definition of family to include humans we deem to be like us in some way. Our friends, our classmates, our colleagues, our fellow subway riders. Our species has become experts at collaboration by using mutually agreed upon stories about who we are to each other.

Networking is scary or gross because of the stories we tell ourselves about it. We can choose to tell ourselves, and each other, different stories.

Read This Week:

Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management? – HBR, Raffaella Sadun, Nicholas Bloom, and John Van Reenen

A slightly longer (and very worthwhile) read disputing the notion that “companies can’t expect to compete on the basis of internal managerial competencies because they’re just too easy to copy.” The authors stake their position on research undertaken over 15 years, on 12,000 organizations in 34 countries to assess the impact of core management practices on a range of company success metrics (profit, growth, productivity, patents, employee well-being, and retention.

“…if a firm can’t get the operational basics right, it doesn’t matter how brilliant its strategy is.”

Of significant interest to me were the findings that asking managers and leaders in these organizations to rate the quality of their firms management practices was entirely useless as a measure of actual quality:

“…we found zero correlation between perceived management quality and actual quality (as indicated by both their firms’ management scores and their firms’ performance), suggesting that self-assessments are a long way from reality.

This large gap is problematic, because it implies that even managers who really need to improve their practices often don’t take the initiative, in the false belief that they’re doing just fine.”

Those of us working in the HR/Learning/Leadership space are unlikely to be surprised by much of the findings outlined in this article, but the breadth of the research is a heartening substantiaion that while frequently deprioritized or dismissed as a costly ‘nice to have’, focusing development on foundational management capabilities can produce far-reaching business impact.

“Today business students are encouraged to judge case studies about operational effectiveness as “nonstrategic” and to see these issues as not pertinent to the role of the CEO. But it’s unwise to teach future leaders that strategic decision making and basic management processes are unrelated, and that the first is far more important to competitive success than the second.”

What’s The Most Ridiculous Rule in Your Workplace – Reddit thread

If you work in a well-managed organization, allow me to burst through your bubble by sharing this bleakly hilarious Reddit thread, where people of the interwebs are providing a window into the persistent corporate madness perpetuated by tiny workplace tyrants. (I wrote a post on this a while ago with a particularly egregious example from a friend).

The comment thread continues to swell, and I defy you to read this without howling in disbelief and also recognition. A few favorites:

“At my old job, HR held a meeting to tell us that there was too much swearing on the sales floor. Someone raised their hand and pointed out that swearing is very common in our industry and that is the way that our customers speak. HR later sent out a memo explaining that swearing should be limited to conversations with clients. It was amazing.”

“Business casual dress code even when i work at home. (They skype me to check)” Note: this was submitted by an intern at a logistics company

“I don’t know if it’s standard, but I worked at a place where HR wasn’t allow to tell us if someone was fired. It was a big enough place that you might not immediately realize someone had left and, when you found out, you weren’t supposed to ask why. So, if you wanted to know if they were fired, you asked, “Was there cake?” Which was to say that, if the person had retired or left pleasantly after a number of years, they would be given a party with cake. If they were fired, not so much.”

How Learning to Be Vulnerable Can Make Life Safer – NPR, Angus Chen

A fascinating article about the personal and organizational impact of fostering vulnerability in a high-stakes environment: “That helped contribute to an 84 percent decline in Shell’s accident rate company- wide.”

In 1997, Shell began building a deepwater platform, Ursa — a $1.45 billion behemoth that would stand 48 stories tall and, when completed, would become the world’s deepest offshore well. Rick Fox, the asset leader for Ursa, says executing something this vast was a struggle, beyond the scale of anything they’d ever attempted. Something needed to change, he says, if Ursa was going to be built and operated safely.

…Fox got a call from a woman named Claire Nuer. She was a leadership consultant, a Holocaust survivor and a devotee of California New Age circles. She had heard about the seemingly insurmountable project, and she said she could help. When Fox started talking about technical problems like drilling schedules, she stopped him. She said he wasn’t dealing with his real problem: his fear. The change Fox needed, she said, to make Ursa work, was in how the men dealt with their feelings.”

Stop Pretending You Know What AI is and Read This Instead – Quartz, John Pavlus

Great reminder that a lot of the discourse in popular media is written to attract eyeballs, not carefully parsing the use of clickable terms. Not only is there very little clarity or consistency brought to various breathless posts about robots taking our jobs, there isn’t even always clarity on terminology among scientists working in the fields associated with robotics, AI, and machine learning.

“If that doesn’t sound very satisfying, the experts don’t disagree. “At this point, AI is an aspirational term reflecting a goal,” Darrell says. What he means is that “AI” isn’t, technically speaking, a thing. It’s not in your phone. It isn’t going to eat the world or do anything to your job. It’s not even an “it” at all: It’s just a suitcase word enclosing a foggy constellation of “things”—plural—that do have real definitions and edges to them. All the other stuff you hear about—machine learning, deep learning, neural networks, what have you—are much more precise names for the various scientific, mathematical, and engineering methods that people employ within the field of AI.

…its potential for seeding both magical thinking and abject confusion about real economic, social, and political changes also seems bottomless. If the experts don’t really know what they talk about when they talk about AI, is it any wonder that you and I don’t, either?”

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