Networking. You know it's important to the longevity of your organization and to your own career, yet it's hard not to use the word without feeling slightly, well, dirty. After all, the image we associate with networking is the selfish, ruthless ladder-climber.
But that image is rooted in misconceptions about the practice and the actions of a few select offenders. That networking has been misunderstood on many levels has led many to give up on building relationship capital (i.e., professional connections) before they even start. That's a mistake no professional, regardless of where you are in your career, can afford to make.
Here are the seven most egregious myths about networking, why they're inaccurate, and what professionals can do to boost their relationship-building prowess and, in turn, their business.
1. "It's all about what you can do for me."
If your networking strategy is to look for the top-level people in your industry and bombard them with requests, you're doing yourself a major disservice (plus, you're probably being a pain). The best way to build an active, robust network is to master the law of reciprocity. Developing a reputation for being generous makes people more likely to take a chance on helping you. And who knows? Maybe the person you help will be in a position to help you down the road.
2. "Extroverts make the best networkers."
That's only true if you think that being a pro networker is the same as being the most popular person in the room. (It's not. More on that later.) Introverts looking to build a better professional network should play to their strengths by focusing on one-on-one conversations and personal referrals from people they already know -- the best way to form the kinds of strong relationships that bear fruit later.
3. "The bigger, the better."
Quality trumps quantity when building connections. Eschew the pointless name collecting and focus instead on high-quality connections with long-term value. That means curating relationships in order to build a diverse group of thought leaders and decision makers with varied backgrounds and expertise, who themselves are well-connected. Leave the popularity contests to the teenagers.
4. "Networking is slimy."
This is a big one. But the fact is, if you think networking is dirty, you're probably doing it wrong. Remember: Networking is just as much about finding people you can help as it is about finding people who can help you. A skilled networker creates relationships with professionals at every level across sectors and industries, and in doing so, generates opportunities for collaboration that benefit those same people and, occasionally, herself.
5. "Business cards count as connections."
When's the last time you looked through all the business cards in your desk drawer? That is, if you've even saved them at all. Business cards are useless without a real connection to the person behind the tiny scrap of card stock. Sure, they're great for sharing contact information with someone who wants to stay in touch with you, but first, you have to give him a reason to want to reach out.
6. "Start with small talk."
Stand down, old guard. While it used to be the networking norm to bond over sports and family before talking business,the new generation of professionals is happy to talk about work -- and, in fact, they expect it. It's not rude or boring to talk shop at a networking happy hour; indeed, starting a conversation about your professional goals is a great way to find people with whom you can have productive relationships. It's simple: if you're passionate about your work, lead with it.
7. "The only relationship organizer I need is my mind."
You'll never know who you don't know. Say you can mentally manage your primary network (the people in your contact list). What if a company need arises that can't be solved with those resources? Provided you've built a healthy network of well-connected individuals, it's a good bet that someone in your contact list (or your colleagues' lists) knows someone who's not, and that person can help. That's where technology becomes invaluable. A relationship management platform can provide a view into those critical secondary connections, and leave your brain free for actual strategy.
The takeaway: Relationships form the bedrock of any successful business- or career-building strategy. But it's tough to build relationships without networking, and it's tough to start networking if you've bought into its less-than-stellar reputation. It's time to fix that, and start amassing the relationship capital that will pay both short- and long-term dividends for you and your organization.