The New 'Networking'—or Just Plain Old Helping
Networking in the traditional sense has somehow become synonymous with hustling—get out there, meet people, press palms. When I think of a networking event, I envision a woman standing in an elevator. She’s about to walk into a hotel ballroom filled with people she doesn’t know. She wears her best suit; her pockets are filled with business cards. Though she looks polished and ready to greet on the outside, inside she is thinking to herself, “God, I just want to go upstairs and order room service.” This is “networking”— it sounds like and often feels like a chore. Instead, let’s call it helping or creating a constellation—doesn’t that sound more rewarding?
Traditional networking is typically motivated by the desire to acquire something: a business card, an invite, a job, a connection, a partner or client, or funding for your business. But not only is that approach ineffective, it will also leave you frustrated and exhausted. In fact, a “what’s in it for me” mindset is the opposite of what I suggest for developing nourishing business relationships. Instead of throwing business cards at a roomful of people who will likely add them to their recycling bin, I recommend a simple paradigm shift. The best way to become a connector—to build a meaningful and robust network—is to take command and be the host. Rather than waiting for an invitation (or to “get” anything at all), do the inviting yourself.
Take the next step in the Gather phase by channeling your inner Martha Stewart and being the best host you can be. This is the “how can I help” mantra in action. You don’t have to wait for permission to immerse yourself in the company you wish to be. You can arrange and host those gatherings yourself. What you’re really asking in this instance is: How can I take a stand in the position of host and decide not only who should attend a gathering, but also why and how?
But it’s important make the distinction between hosting and people pleasing! When you’re hosting and making others feel comfortable, you are considering your needs just as much as anyone else’s. A host doesn’t stretch him or herself too thin or agree to taking on events or actions that they don’t have the bandwidth or resources to execute. People pleasing, on the other hand, is motivated by what others need—and how much they value you—and is often a result of poorly defined boundaries. According to the 2019 Fast Company article “How to stop your people-pleasing behavior from limiting your success,” people pleasing goes one step beyond graciousness. And it can backfire professionally as “pleasers” are typically seen as less powerful and earn less respect from their colleagues. While a gracious host—someone who embodies the ethos of the “how can I help” mantra—keeps an eye toward how he or she can make others feel comfortable, a people-pleaser compulsively and continually says “yes” to others’ requests, even at the expense of their own mental and physical health. This is an important distinction: I’m not suggesting that you become a pleaser. The “how can I help” method that I espouse is one that elevates you to a more powerful position of leadership, connection and resources.
A Different Kind of JOMO
Hosting—rather than waiting to be invited—makes connecting easier in two key ways. First, it completely transforms your inner monologue. When you’re doing the inviting, any anxiety, fear, or dread you might have about networking can dissolve. Instead of wondering “Will I be invited?” your thoughts can become “Who should I invite?” Asking yourself that question immediately puts you into a position of power: You are in control. FOMO (fear of missing out) can transform into JOMO—but not the “joy of missing out” you’ve probably heard about. In this scenario, JOMO becomes the joy of meeting others. The genius of this strategy is that it elevates you from a position of weakness—wondering what fabulous networking events are transpiring without you—to a position of power and strength. Instead of being a follower, waiting for permission, you become a leader: hosting, connecting and building relationships, one gathering or call at a time. People will begin to perceive you as a proactive leader: “Did you hear about the gatherings that Susan is hosting?”
The old way of networking is tiring, outdated and ineffective. It often results in awkward encounters with people we may not find inspiring. When we fall into the networking trap, we can find ourselves making forced connections with people we think are the “right” ones to know. While we wait for an invitation to the networking event or gathering that will put us in proximity to our dream investor, donor, influencer or mentor—we are in a position of weakness. Will they want me? Will they invite me? It’s reactive and submissive—not to mention stressful. This waiting approach flips the balance of power out of our favor, and in my experience, it also leads to stagnation and “failure to launch” rather than growth. But you can reclaim your place at the gathering by throwing one yourself. Establishing yourself as someone who organizes and hosts events (even online events)—who gives as well as receives—will also set you up for future invitations and connections.
There’s even a term for this in social psychology—reciprocity. Reciprocity is the normalized social behavior of responding to a positive action (waving “hello,” for example) with another positive action (a wave back). It’s the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And while it may seem that not everyone follows this rule, most do. When you do reach out, connect and invite, the recipients of your gifts will feel a sense of indebtedness to return that favor to you, but not in a demanding or required way. Whenever you feel like you don’t have a “big enough” network, or if you feel you lack meaningful business connections, there’s only one person who can fix it: you. The good news? There’s proof that “inviting to get invited” works. Personally, I can attest to the effectiveness of this method because I’ve used it myself for 30 years with great success.
But there is further proof. In 1974, a sociologist at Brigham Young University by the name of Phillip Kunz decided to conduct an experiment on reciprocity. He was curious: What would happen if he sent out holiday cards to complete strangers? Would any of them reply? He compiled a list of 600 random names and accompanying addresses. And as many of us do over the holidays, he mailed out cards to all 600 families on that list. But the difference, of course, was that he’d never met any of these people. He included a handwritten note, or a photo of himself with his family, wishing them well during the holiday season. The results were impressive. He got replies: at first, just a few; they trickled in. But soon there was an onslaught—over the course of the holiday season, he received over 200 holiday cards from his list of complete strangers. He was even more surprised by what came back in the mail to him—in some cases, he received lengthy replies. Some people mailed him handwritten letters up to four pages long! And not only that—the correspondences weren’t short-lived. He and his family received cards from some of those strangers for 15 years! Kunz’s holiday card experiment illustrates the law of reciprocity in action—someone who is initially a stranger can become a long-term, meaningful connection—just because you reached out and gave them a reason to connect with you.
If you’re still not convinced, allow me to remind you that you engage in reciprocity every single day, often without realizing it. We all do! It’s the reason we say “good morning” back to someone who greeted us in the elevator or smile back at someone we pass on the hiking trail. Sure, there will be a few jerks along the way who break or take advantage of this social norm, but most human beings want to help each other, to connect and to return kindness. All you have to do is start inviting, and you’ll be invited in return. Whatever it is that you’re lacking—connections, ideas, invitations to events—start giving them to other people. And soon like the sociologist Kunz, you will see them returned to you. What you also learn from this process is that while you may have once thought “I really hope this person would invite me to their event,” chances are quite good that someone on your invite list felt exactly the same way. Now you have satisfied that person’s need to belong. And when someone gives us that gift of mattering, even if it’s with a simple holiday card, most human beings feel motivated to return that kindness.
Excerpted and adapted from The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships by Susan McPherson, p. 21-32 (McGraw Hill, March 2021).