About a year ago, I realized something incredible: I had become the “I got a guy” person for almost everyone I knew.
When a friend was starting a business and needed advice on sales pitching – “I got a guy.”
When a colleague was looking for a photographer to cover a wedding on short notice – “I got a guy.”
When a family member needed to find a good, reliable voice actor – “I got a guy who knows a guy.”
I had to stop and wonder finally. How did I – a lifelong introvert who doesn’t ever have oodles of friends – know so many “guys”?
And that’s when it hit me: I had been networking. Not in the fast, shallow way that you’re taught in seminars, where it’s handshake + business card = probably never going to speak again. No, it was through making friends, being choosy, and being dependable.
Once I realized what a good thing I had, I naturally had to break it down and write a detailed list. For science, of course.
1. Make Friends
This is the best way to grow a reliable network. I’ve never been one to have large, cohesive groups of friends, but what I’ve always been great at is cultivating close friendships with many separate like-minded individuals. And life circumstances have taken me through many unrelated social scenarios, out of which I managed to retain at least two or three close friendships. Because my social network is so decentralized, those individuals usually have many other friends I don’t necessarily know, and they’re always happy to make introductions.
Now while this way of socializing naturally sets me up to have a wide-ranging network, it isn’t for everyone. Many people prefer localized social groups, and that’s fine. The point here is that “networking” has to first and foremost be a real relationship. Handshake + business card isn’t going to cut it. But handshake + meaningful conversation + “Hey, I’d really like to continue this conversation over lunch” + “This was fun, let’s do it again” + etc. etc. will.
Even if you don’t have a lot of time to make a connection (say you met at a conference and will likely never see each other again in person), it’s still important to form some sort of organic relationship. That means a relationship separate from whatever it is you can gain from each other. A relationship that is genuine is one that will actually last (and with far less active maintenance).
2. Be Selective
You can also think of this as being strategic.
You don’t have to be friends with everyone to have meaningful connections. In fact, since creating a solid network relies on forming substantive relationships, you’re not going to have time to create those kinds of connections with everyone. And if you don’t actually like the person you’re trying to connect with that much in the first place, chances are it’s going to be a largely wasted effort.
So be selective. Be courteous to everyone you meet (no one likes a jerk), but don’t worry if you’re not the life of the party. Friendships are like icebergs. If you form a meaningful relationship with someone, then all their meaningful relationships become potential connections for you as well. Focus on your connections with the people whose values mesh well with yours, and you’ll come away with far more than meets the eye.
For me, this means people who are creative but analytical, and who also have one or two main passions that really drive their life forward. These are the sort of people I find interesting, and I’m fortunate that people like that happen to have useful skills that they’re more than happy to share.
3. Be A Friend
It may sound like what I’m saying up to now is “make friends to use them,” but I’m not. To make a friend, you have to be a friend. That means you have to give just as much as you get. If you make it clear to your new friends that you’re there for them and have their backs, you can be sure that when you’re in a bind they’ll have your back.
This means that you should be prepared to be proactive. If you realize that someone in your network is in need of help that you or one of your connections can provide, don’t wait for them to ask. Offer it. And even if you aren’t in a position where you can do anything to help, ask anyway. There might be something they need that you never considered, and at the very least, they know you care.
4. Ask for Help
What good is a network if you never use it? By and large, people generally like being helpful. There’s an odd undercurrent of mandated self-reliance that seems to permeate the American psyche, but the truth of the matter is that most people really don’t mind giving aid to their friends and neighbors. In fact, doing so often makes them feel good about themselves. And knowing that they’ve helped someone makes them feel closer to the person whom they’ve helped.
So ask. If you’re pleasant about it, it won’t hurt, which means all it can do is help.