Effective Networking for Leaders (and Aspiring Ones)

At conferences, “networking” can become too much like overeager hustling. Patience—and some good questions—are more effective.

By Mark Athitakis

Any leader—or aspiring leader—needs to be good at networking. Everybody can agree on that. But, hang on: What’s networking?

The question is worth asking, because there are certainly examples of bad networking. Just about anybody who’s attended a professional mixer has had the awkward experience of talking to a person who’s polished their get-to-know-you patter a little too much, who’s pressing a little too hard for a tip, a reference, a follow-up meeting, all within two minutes of meeting you. Insincerity and need drip from their pores.

It’s that sort of networking-as-hucksterism that author and consultant Scott Gerber recently bemoaned in a CNBC article suggesting that “networking is dead.” It’s not, but craven networking is a problem for certain: “Networkers are people who are very short-term thinkers, very transactional oriented,” Gerber says. “They use relationships for their personal gain or personal strategies.”

Gerber’s recommendation is to become what he calls a “super-connector,” somebody who “fundamentally realizes that your social capital is the most important currency you’ll ever have.” They are also “people who think more long-term in terms of value creation.” So good networkers still have a business mindset—they’re just not trying to hustle you onto their agenda right away.

There’s more than a whiff of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in Gerber’s super-connector concept, which is fine because a connector persona is true and enduring. Just as we’ve all met that huckster at a mixer, we all know that one person who’s a walking Rolodex, who seems to know everybody, and who’s eager to put you in touch with just the right person when you have an issue.

The thing about being a Gladwellian connector, though, is that they’re more born than made—they have a friendly, open temperament that’s hard to fake. That doesn’t mean a more introverted person can’t be a connector, super or otherwise, just that it requires different tactics.

Asking questions is easy; getting comfortable with asking them isn’t. Questions can be complicated things both for the person asked and the person doing the asking.

For instance, there’s a lesson to be learned from Mark Granovetter’s classic study, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” [PDF] which posited that the most effective resources we have when it comes to finding a job are those who are outside of our immediate personal and professional circles—it’s only when we start looking outside of our bubbles that we learn about new opportunities. Successful connector-dom is largely a function of being somebody who gathers lots of ties, weak and strong, and not necessarily to any immediate purpose. Because you’re doing this for the long haul, you’re free from the pressure of having to approach everybody at that mixer with an ask. All you have to do is get to know them.

As for how to do that—well, the huckster at the mixer is apparently now pervasive enough that even the Harvard Business Review is moved to teach us basic social skills. In “The Surprising Power of Questions,” Harvard professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John lay out a few of the benefits of being an inquisitive person: You’re learning things, you’re building relationships, you’re uncovering things that you might miss if you simply assume you know the answer instead of asking about them. “Most people just don’t understand how beneficial good questioning can be,” they write. “If they did, they would end far fewer sentences with a period—and more with a question mark.”

That’s a no-brainer, but Brooks and John do have some good and effective advice to help ensure your question-asking does what it intends to both in the short term (learning, relationships, etc.) and long term (make you a better leader). For instance: Follow-up questions carry a lot of weight, because they provide evidence that you’ve been listening to what was said in response to the first question. Yes-or-no questions are lawyeristic and have a habit of closing off conversations. And there are external circumstances to consider too: Whether the conversation is one-on-one or in a group setting, and whether your interlocutor is receptive to you getting up in the business at all, casually or no.

Asking questions is easy; getting comfortable with asking them isn’t. If it were, we wouldn’t need so much guidance about networking, from Dale Carnegie to Gladwell on down. Questions can be complicated things both for the person asked and the person doing the asking.

“Answering questions requires making a choice about where to fall on a continuum between privacy and transparency,” the authors write. “Should we answer the question? If we answer, how forthcoming should we be? What should we do when asked a question that, if answered truthfully, might reveal a less-than-glamorous fact or put us in a disadvantaged strategic position?”

Ultimately, though, successful networking respects the kind of work that’s involved because it respects the people involved—the transactional element will always be there, but it can be kept at arm’s length. “I don’t know anyone that likes being networked to,” Gerber says. Me neither, and you too, probably. But we all want relationships, and if we do that right, the “networking” will largely take care of itself.

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor for Associations Now. This article originally appeared on AssociationsNow.com

Networking Career Development