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Networking Is a Critical Skill—Learn to Do It Even During a Pandemic

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues, surveying more than 1,000 individuals about their daily lives, discovered that people enjoy socializing with others even more than they enjoy relaxing or watching television. But their enjoyment depends on who they interact with. People said they love interacting with friends, relatives and their significant other. Professional acquaintances? Not so much. The research makes clear why people don’t network as much as they should: they don’t like it.

Professional networking is about building (and maintaining) a host of relationships necessary to a successful career. One study of 459 public servants observed that network-building behaviors were related to the accumulation of social capital, which in turn affected the speed of promotion. And a longitudinal study found that networking was related both to current salary and to the growth of salary over time.

Still, professional networking is demanding in the best of circumstances. Networking remotely—after a day filled with Zoom meetings—seems like too much (and evidence shows that so-called Zoom fatigue is real). Notwithstanding people’s discomfort or feeling tired, organizational life (even in a post-COVID world) is premised on and filled with interpersonal relationships—and there’s ways to do it without it being uninspiring.

Marketing guru Keith Ferrazzi’s best-selling book title says it all, Never Eat Alone. Evidence shows that networking is essential to career success, but it doesn’t have to be so effortful. Here are some tips to make your professional relationship-building more effective and efficient, whether you do it remotely or in person.

1. Spend the Time—The More You Do It, The More You’ll Like It

A survey of more than 12,000 business professionals reported that people who said that "networking played a role in their success" spent almost 7 hours a week in networking activities, leading the author, Dr. Ivan Misner, to conclude that people should spend 8-10 hours a week building professionally-relevant relationships. As he noted, "the secret to getting more through networking is spending more time doing it!"

Thus, it’s beneficial to spend sufficient time on networking activities. Figure out who you need to meet to get things done and advance in your career, make a list and determine how you are going to connect with those individuals and what you’d like to talk about when you do. Keith Ferrazzi recommends being strategic in how you spend your time, focusing the time you invest in building relationships on the people who can be the most helpful to you. Like all skills and many activities, we enjoy the things where we develop proficiency. Many of my students tell me that what is uncomfortable and unnatural initially—including networking—becomes more pleasant and easier over time.

And at a time when interacting remotely for work-required meetings is ever more encompassing, ensuring that you spend sufficient time on building useful professional relationships is even more important as chance encounters happen less (if at all). The best way to ensure you do anything, including physical exercise, is to put time for the activity on your calendar. Work professional relationship building into your schedule—and hold to the time you have set aside.

2. Cultivate a Large Number of Weak Ties

Years ago, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter noted that people tended to find jobs (and to find better jobs) through people with whom they had only weak ties—people they may have met casually once or twice, saw infrequently and were more like casual acquaintances.

The intuition behind this oft-replicated finding on the importance of weak ties: people to whom one is strongly tied are more likely to have the same information and contacts, whereas people to whom one is weakly tied tend to have non-redundant information and contacts. That novel information is more useful. As Granovetter wrote, "individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends."

Spend time meeting people from diverse industries and geographies. Just as diversification is useful for a financial portfolio, knowing a diverse group of people with different interests and backgrounds—not necessarily very well—is professionally useful. And yes, one can build casual contacts even in the absence of face-to-face interactions. Email people, send people ideas and suggestions, offer help—lead with generosity. People need even more help and ideas during the crisis, and they will appreciate your sharing information and insights.

3. Seek Out Brokerage, Bridging or Linking Roles

It’s beneficial to bring together individuals or groups that could profit from interacting together. Venture capitalists connect social actors with money to invest with people who have technology or other business ideas. Real estate brokers connect house buyers with house sellers, investment bankers connect entities that need capital with those that have capital to invest—the range of brokerage opportunities is vast.

University of Chicago sociologist Ronald Burt has thoroughly explored the career advantages to those who perform brokerage roles—the technical term is "fill structural holes"—inside companies. The thinking behind the empirical results is straightforward. "Opinion and behavior are more homogeneous within than between groups, so people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behavior," Burt writes. "Brokerage across the structural holes between groups provides a vision of options otherwise unseen, which is the mechanism by which brokerage becomes social capital." This translates into career success in part because brokers, thanks to their diverse connections, are better able to come up with good ideas.

Burt’s research generates the following important insight: network position matters. People who bridge groups, either within or across organizations—or better yet, do both—are advantaged in their careers and job performance. Strategize over who could profitably benefit from being connected and then connect them. Seek out job roles or committee assignments that position you to bridge across different subunits or groups.

4. Networking’s Not a Personality Characteristic—It Can Be Learned

Networking is a behavior, not a reflection of someone’s personality.

When Tristan Walker graduated from Stanford Business School in 2010, he had more than 300,000 followers on Twitter. By the time I wrote a case on him in 2016, Walker had articles about him in Fast Company, The New York Times, and many others. He had founded Walker and Company Brands to provide personal grooming products including razors to underserved communities of color.

Walker, the very public, very visible face of his company, was, by his own admission and the comments of his classmates, an introvert. As Jeff Jordan, the founder and former CEO of OpenTable told me, one leadership responsibility is to be the public face of the company, to do all-hands meetings, to build the company’s brand in the media. Tristan Walker was successful in building a powerful personal brand and numerous important connections in the venture capital community even though he was an introvert.

Fortunately, the evidence suggests that all of these networking skills—like all skills—can be taught and learned—even if you identify as an introvert. University of Chicago sociologist Ronald Burt is a leading scholar and teacher of network concepts. He and a colleague conducted a field experiment in which they educated some executives in a company on building social capital and analyzing network structures. The authors compared the subsequent careers of people who had attended the program with people who had not attended the program.

They found that graduates of the executive education training in network ideas were 36-42% more likely to receive top performance evaluations, 43-72% more likely to be promoted (an effect that got larger over time) and 42-74% more likely to be retained by the company. This evidence shows that network ideas are teachable—and learnable—with good outcomes for those who master the material.

Of course, it is harder to put these learned skills into practice during a pandemic. People are not accidentally meeting others at the conventions that no longer occur in person, for example. The implication? People need to be even more strategic in their networking activities.

What once could be left to chance can no longer be—networking must become even more intentional. And it is likely that networking skills and social capital will become even more important in an environment where successful networking is more difficult. That makes the lessons of networking even more important to master.

For more from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s column, the Learning Corner, click here.

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