Is Your Networking Not Working?

by Marnie Hoolahan, November 2019

Networking! You know, that activity that one either embraces or goes running away from as quickly as possible. For many, the word evokes a grueling, overwhelming, unnatural process, and something that requires stepping way out of one’s comfort zone.

But I have two pieces of good news…

First, networking is an incredibly effective tool for your professional development. Biopharma companies run on relationships; it’s the oil in the engine. We are a matrixed, cross-functional, ecosystem that demands connections. The stronger and more authentic your relationships, the more opportunities you’ll discover for growing your career, contributing to the success of your company, and expanding your circle of trust. Networking opens the door to more of these vital connections.

Second, it’s a learned skill. Of course, some people have an easier time striking up a conversation with a stranger at a conference or reaching out to another professional on LinkedIn. But anyone can be successful at making these connections — it’s more about technique and practice than personality type or style. With some simple tweaks to your networking approach and mindset, you can overcome any fears you may have.

Two mantras to keep in mind as you move ahead:

Most people want to help others if they can.
What is the worst that can happen?

Here are four suggestions for expanding your networking effectiveness:

#1. Think relationship, not transaction.

For some people, networking is primarily about trading things of value — “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but to me, those connections are short-lived, and they underutilize the potential of what it means to connect in a deeper way.

Simply put, networking is about building relationships.

At its best, it involves creating value-added, enriching opportunities and experiences that provide mutual benefit. The impact can be hard to measure, and yet when I look back on my career, I owe much of whatever success I’ve had to people I’ve gotten to know along the way — some of whom have reappeared weeks, months, and even years later. This has motivated me to pay it forward to others who seek me out for the same reasons.

#2. Plan ahead.

Getting out and meeting others, whether in person or virtually, is the objective. But you’ll have much better results if you spend some time with the who, what, and why behind whatever is motivating you to reach out:

Are you…

… spearheading an initiative at work and need to identify and understand the key stakeholders in the organization relative to the project?

…trying to advance your career and hoping to learn more about how your organization functions?

…looking to leave a job and eager to investigate a company or role?

… attending an event on a topic with the hope of meeting others who have a mutual interest?

Depending on your intent, try to have a few “go-to” questions as you approach others. Within a company, you may ask: “What are the priorities of your team? Tell me about your role.” When interacting with those outside your company, consider questions like: “What do you do for a living? What brought you to this event?” Having your own answers to these same questions will help you keep the conversation going.

Whatever the specifics of your situation, if you plan ahead, you will be…

…more efficient. Planning helps you home in on who to meet, where to find them, and how best to connect.

…more comfortable. When you’re prepared, it’s easier to approach strangers, helping you feel more secure in your outreach.

…more memorable. Many networkers are just “friendly wanderers.” Those with a clear purpose and mission stand out.

#3. Provide value.

In a recent episode of his “WorkLife” podcast (Networking for People Who Hate Networking), Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant said something that resonated with me: “You don’t have to start by building your contact list. You can start by building your skills because having expertise to share sets you up to connect with interesting people.”

Have you recently conquered a strategic challenge that might be of use to someone else? Do you have a knack for organization design and execution? Can you help make connections between people in your network to better their knowledge and contacts?

The last question is hard to explain, but I think about people I know and how they should be connected to other people I know. Those relationships will help them on either a professional or personal level.

Overall, beyond merely meeting people, the best networking looks to leverage the totality of who you are and what you bring to share with others — your skills, perspective, and experiences.

#4. Look within your current company.

In a previous role, I made a deliberate effort to understand as much as I could about who else worked in the building and how each person and department fit into the overall functioning of the organization. Not only did this help me do my job better (I gradually began to appreciate the bigger picture), it helped others get to know who I was and where I fit. It also meant that I could greet people in the elevator, lunch line, and at company functions with a sense of recognition. My community became more real.

If you’re new to networking, this is a good place to start. The work environment should be a little more comfortable and can provide plenty of networking practice. You’ll find your coworkers easier to approach, and your shared company mission provides a built-in reason to reach out, connect, and learn from one another. (If your work culture doesn’t align with this point of view, then maybe that problem should be solved first.)

Conclusion

Like so many non-deadline-dependent things, networking is easy to put off until another day. Please don’t.

No matter where you are in your career, building relationships, working collaboratively, and contributing to the success of others will inevitably be a part of your job. The more you practice reaching out to interesting strangers, the easier and more comfortable it will become, particularly as you start to realize some of the benefits.

And, who knows? If you’re not careful, you may even find that networking is both fun and fulfilling!