Is “Authentic Networker” a Contradiction in Terms?

Yesterday, I sent an email out to >50 friends and advisors, letting them know that I’ve taken a new role at a Series A startup, and thanking them for their time and guidance through the search process.  The length of the bcc list astounded me — I hadn’t realized until then that I had leaned on so many people over the past 3 months for support. Seeing this filled me with gratitude and some awe, as I never really contemplated the strength and size of my network until just then.  

Networking.  Ugh, gross. The word conjures up the image of someone (likely in a dark room, the light from their computer monitor casting angular shadows) sitting in front of an Excel spreadsheet, fastidiously marking down contact details, how the contact could be helpful, and setting calendar reminders to follow up.  Or maybe it evokes someone at a cocktail party whose eyes dart around the room while you are talking to them, continuously optimizing to get in front of the most ‘important’ people in the room.

In either case, the word ‘networking’ can feel too close to ‘self-serving’ and ‘calculating’ to be something I’d want to be known for.  And yet… I’ve been told that I have a fairly large network. 😱

While there may be folks who are self-serving and calculating in their networking, that hasn’t been my modus operandi (MO).  The fact is I’m a pretty clumsy networker and got ‘started’ only recently, almost by accident and out of desperation. In my first Head of People role at Venmo, I felt completely out of my depth, so sought help from others.  And I was lucky because — and especially because — the startup People community is full of generous and kind people who are intrinsically motivated to elevate the People function, one person at a time.  Within a few months, I had had a dozen coffee dates and video chats, gained membership into a self-organized group of Heads of People who meet monthly and exchange ideas and answers via a Google Group, and hosted a meetup at Venmo’s office.  As I gained comfort in my role, I became a more productive member of the Google Group, participated proactively in broader dialogues about company culture and people strategy through speaking engagements and writing, and — most important — I found my own ways to contribute back to the community that got me to where I was (and am).  

Specifically, as I’ve gotten to know more and more members of the startup and People community, it’s become second-nature to connect talented people to one another, informally or for a specific opportunity.  (This may be related to the role I played at McKinsey, where for several years I acted as the ‘clearinghouse’ across multiple people, personalities, engagements, clients, preferences, strength and development profiles, etc.  In other words, I played ‘matchmaker’. 💘) In the interest of connecting people with new roles, I created and maintain a messy-but-effective Head of People Job Opportunities spreadsheet, which is shared and open to HR leaders.  This has led to CEOs asking me for referrals and guidance as they look for Heads of People, enabling me to flex those aforementioned matchmaking skills.  In addition, I try to respond and help anyone who reaches out to me via LinkedIn or this blog (there are a few exceptions, I admit 😑), and look for other small ways to contribute back when I can.

My friends point out that I “never say no” and that I stand to be taken advantage of.  While I don’t entirely disagree, I send people to Adam Grant’s phenomenal book, Give and Take.  In it, he notes that — contrary to conventional wisdom — people who give more often end up in a better position (happier, more fulfilled, more successful — however defined) than those who are takers.  As I was looking for a nice, juicy quote for this blogpost, I literally opened up to page 22 and read a line from an executive who spends hours mentoring, volunteering, and contributing back to her company:  “My default is to give. I’m not looking for quid pro quo; I’m looking to make a difference and have an impact, and I focus on the people who can benefit from my help the most.” Honestly, that captures my view in a nutshell.  The focus is not about me-me-me, it’s about what I can do and that warm feeling of knowing I helped someone out in a meaningful way.

So I do think that it’s possible to become an authentic networker.  And it won’t feel contrived or fake (on either side) if you go about it in a thoughtful and sincere way — with the intention of developing a relationship, not just a contact.  That probably means different things to different people, but for this clumsy networker, here are some tactical things that have worked for me (and things I have seen others do that annoy me 😖):

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  This was probably my biggest initial blocker, because I am someone who always wants to give more than I receive.  I also hate wasting other people’s time. That one-two punch meant that I always felt terrible asking for help. My advice to you:  Get over it. As someone who gets a lot of questions, I can tell you honestly that I enjoy helping people through thought-provoking, squishy problems; talking with them makes me see things in a different way.  That said, I get annoyed when I receive lazy questions — specifically those that are super straightforward (e.g., an answer you can find via Google) or are not well thought-through.
  • Be accommodating to the other person.  When you are asking for help, be empathetic to the other person’s situation and recognize that they likely have many pressing demands on their time.  Offer to talk/meet them at off-hours and near their workplaces. When I get requests from people followed by an impersonal link to their scheduling app that lists times that work for them, I can’t help but wonder, “Am I requesting this meeting, or are they?!”  I am all for efficiency, but networking is about making the personal connection and scheduling apps don’t foster that.
  • Make sure you match the right question with the right person.  A possible rule of thumb is to screen, “Am I asking this person something that they have special and unique (within my network) knowledge of?  Or is this something I can ask someone else?” People want to be helpful in ways that utilize their expertise or unique value.  If you aren’t tapping into that, then it can feel like a waste of time.  Another question to ask yourself is, “Am I just using this person to connect me to another person? Or is there some other value that this person could provide?” If you are just looking for a connection, make sure you really know this person.  For me, I don’t feel comfortable connecting people I don’t know well so just won’t do it.
  • Always ask, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”  Even if the answer is no, the fact that you cared enough to ask makes a huge difference.  And if the answer is yes, that’s your opportunity to further strengthen the bonds of the relationship.
  • When you can, give back.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly your network will scale once you start giving back.  And you can probably do it sooner than you think, even if it is as simple as connecting people you know in mutually-beneficial ways.

Going back to that >50 person email I mentioned at the beginning of this blogpost…  I’d be surprised if anyone on the list felt like I ‘used’ them or that they felt like they got the raw end of a quid pro quo deal.  While I feel a ton of gratitude for how each and every person helped me think through my priorities, the conversations were typically seamless, part of an ongoing relationship.  There will be times when someone needs my help, and vice versa.  It’s so comforting and grounding to know that we have each other and will be there as support when needed.  A network with strong connections — relationships, not contacts — can magically transform into a safety net that gives us courage to shoot higher and do more. 

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