Networking doesn’t have to be dirty

3 minute read

Students hear the cliche, “Your network is your net worth”, from almost the minute they step into their first orientation class. It’s an overused phrase that has brought more harm than good to networking, having instilled the erroneous idea that your value as a potential hire is entirely dependent on the number of people that you know in the professional world. 

Between schmoozing at networking events and sending effusive LinkedIn requests, we’ve come to believe that networking requires us to be anything but genuine. When we strip away the stacks of business cards from networking, it isn’t so different from making friends and growing those relationships. In fact, the “art” of networking isn’t much of an art at all.

I’ve realized that my most helpful professional connections started because of an honest curiosity about someone’s work, career pivot, or growth. These conversations were spurred by a genuine interest in their life and continued out of a mutual respect for the other’s work and wanting to stay in touch. On the contrary, the phone calls that were scheduled after sending a cold-email or LinkedIn request to a 3rd+ connection— motivated solely by the hope of getting my foot in the door— felt contrived and transactional because the request itself was exactly that.

So, how do we bring humanness back into networking? The first step is to shift how we approach these conversations. Networking shouldn’t be equated with one-off requests and the coffee chats that end with the initiator awkwardly making their “big ask” of someone they hardly know.

“That doesn’t mean you should never initiate meetings if you have a specific, immediate goal in mind. But that shouldn’t be confused with ‘networking’,” writes Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out and professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. “But networking— meeting with the goal of building a robust set of connections over time— is a different process with its own set of best practices.”

I appreciate Clark’s definition of networking. These conversations should be intentional and honest because their purpose is to build meaningful relationships. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to communicate your genuine interest in connecting with someone. After all, this colleague has likely received dozens of LinkedIn requests with lukewarm greetings written in a half-hearted effort to conceal the sender’s self-serving intentions.

When we look at networking as relational instead of a transactional exchange, the idea of reaching out to someone we admire or would like to learn from feels much more approachable. This is a loose template of what I’ve found useful when connecting with someone I don’t know well for an informational interview or coffee chat about their career:

Hi [person of interest],

I hope you’re well. I’m [name], a recent [university, if applicable] graduate who is currently working in [industry] at [current company].

I came across your profile by way of [name of mutual connection/alma mater, if applicable] and was very intrigued by your career path into [their current industry], especially your work [doing x, y, or z – name a specific project they’ve worked on that you’re actually curious about!]. This resonates with me because […].

I would love the opportunity to talk with you more about [your previous roles/what career progression looks like in the industry of interest/how you pivoted into X from Y/your experience at ABC company].

Please let me know if you would be open to a coffee chat in the coming weeks. I look forward to connecting!

Demonstrate that you’ve done your research. Whether you read articles that the “professional of interest” has authored, explored their most recent work, or took note of an interesting career shift (an accountant-turned-baker would heighten my curiosity!), call out what caught your eye in your initial email or message. This signals that your introduction is genuine; you took the time to read more about them and it shows.

Relate their story to your own. Take it a step further by explaining why you’re interested in talking further. Whether you’re seeking mentorship, starting your own company in their field of expertise, or looking for the next opportunity, it’s important to bridge the gap between what interested you and why it relates to your professional journey. It’s almost like establishing common ground.

Make it an open invitation. No need to state the obvious, but people are busy. Give your connection time to follow-up with you and leave the ball in their court.

If you successfully schedule a meeting, make sure to follow through with that same initial intention. Don’t surprise them with a “Can I get a job here?” It’s better not to broach such a big ask until you have grown this relationship over time and with consistency.