On a panel at the 2022 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Jane Barrett, Global Editor Media News Strategy at Thomson Reuters, made a case for unstructured networking. While Jane knows as we all do that we need to network with a goal in mind at times, I wholeheartedly agreed. Reflecting on the days at the Perugia Festival, I came up with a few lessons learned about networking in my professional life. Here they are, not as yet another manual, but as a starting point for further thoughts and discussions:
- Read how-to manuals but ignore some of their advice. They usually tell you that your networking needs to be targeted, you need a goal. Fine. But you shouldn’t underestimate unstructured, non-utilitarian networking. The best things happened to me professionally with people I didn’t expect to be useful to me at the time. I just found them interesting, inspiring – or I was just being respectful and nice.
- Be generous. Give people you are in conversation is your full attention, listen to them. Connect them with people you think might be helpful to them or just a good match. Rewards might be plentiful – or they might not. But it can be like start-up-funding: one out of ten might pay off when you are in need. I guess I don’t need to tell you: Networking should always be two-way.
- When networking, go for character, spirits and insights, not too much for status and roles. You might have experienced that yourself: Some people are just interested in you when you seem to be useful to them because of your role or position. And didn’t you sense that? How many of these people would you like to support yourself? People lose their status and roles all the time. They then become painfully aware that many of those who used to be so eager to connect suddenly turn away. This is when they need you most: someone, who respects them as human beings and appreciates who they really are. Once they rise elsewhere, they might lift you up with them.
- Network with young(er) people. Talking to interns, students and the like might appear like a waste of time to those who are focused on seniority. But it can be such a gift. Not only do we all need to connect to the following generations when we study potential user needs. But all generations have their particular perspectives and mindsets, we can broaden our horizons when we learn from them. Transcending generational barriers is one of the big challenges in many legacy organisations but also in start-ups that operate with like-minded, often young peers and lack experienced minds.
- For beginners: Networking is easier when you have something to offer. This holds true in particular for virtual spaces when sneaking into a conversation with a drink in your hand is not an option. If you don’t have content that you produced yourself, recommend stuff that might fit the other person’s needs.
- Network across industries. It is lovely to reconnect with professional peers again and again, many of them might become friends over the years. But consciously seek out events from adjacent industries or those that have tackled particular challenges exceptionally well. Take on the big topics that are relevant to any industry, like talent and diversity, climate change, or artificial intelligence and find out how others have gone about them. You might be surprised.
- The nightly reunion at the bar is overestimated. Fear of missing out is a common feature at many industry events. There are people who thrive after hours but also others who just stay awake because they feel they need to network some more. Usually this won’t get them anywhere near their hopes and expectations. Because others will sense if you are tired, bored, or annoyed. Everyone has to develop their own personal networking style. Networking should be fun after all.