How to cultivate a lifelong network when you suck at networking

I have a network that I didn’t set out to create. Curiosity and a specific type of work environment created it. I just needed to do my job and not be too much of an asshole.

I’m terrible at networking. At events, I struggle to introduce myself to people. I don’t drink. I like to talk much more than I tend to listen. I am terrible at recognizing people’s faces and remembering their names. Under pressure, I can be a bit of an asshole to work with, but that’s not a habitual thing. If you have a book on how to be a great networker, whatever the advice in that book says, I’m sure I’m doing the opposite.

But here I am at age 61 with a thriving business based in large part on my network. My network is full of people with skills I need to tap, or people who can introduce me to people like that. My network brings me clients. My network supplies me with validation. And, now that I am working at home on my own, my network has substituted for all the social interaction I used to have the office, thereby keeping me sane.

I feel incredibly lucky to be in this position. But how did I, a terrible networker, get so lucky?

Looking back, here’s what I did.

1 Work at a collaborative place, and be collaborative

Most of the network I now have began at Forrester Research. Forrester is a hive of experts. Since the job of an analyst is to create ideas from new first-hand research and thinking, you’re constantly working out in a space where things are unknown. That means you’re going to need help from other experts.

The unspoken but absolutely uniform cultural rule at Forrester is that you help other analysts. If you need help from one of the world’s top experts on consumer privacy, you just call her (and if she needs help from a top expert on the television industry, she calls you). Similarly, if a sales or marketing person needs help, you help.

I loved this. Towards the end of my time there, collaborating with and helping other researchers was my main job.

The result of all those collaborations was a huge list of people who I’d worked closely with. These weren’t say-hello-in-the-breakroom connections, they were people whose minds I admired (and, I hope, vice versa).

Those people have jobs all over the place now. But I can contact any of them on a moment’s notice and they’ll try to help me out.

2 Look outward and serve lots of people

To do research, you have to talk to other people in the world, typically people who’ve done something notable. This leads to substantive conversations.

I also was required to interact regularly with clients and serve their needs. The nature of those interactions meant I had to listen carefully to what they were doing, which demands empathy. I also had to know what I was talking about so they would listen, which creates respect.

Empathy combined with respect generates actual relationships. For example, I just called up a senior advertising executive and interviewed him for a book I’m working on. I hadn’t spoken with him in a decade. But he remembered me, and I remembered him, because of that respect and empathy from when we had worked together as analyst and client.

3 Work at the same place for a while

Early in my career I changed jobs every two or three years. I have some professional friends from those days, but not so many. Also, since I was young, most of those friends are older than me, and many are retired.

But working in one company for 20 years allowed me to create a much more diverse set of relationships with coworkers. We connected over a period of many years. When they left for other jobs, they remembered me, and I remembered them. And many of them were younger than me.

One of those folks just called me for a writing workshop — and it’s not the first time that’s happened.

If you work for a whole in an organization of hundreds of people (not tens of thousands), you’ll inevitably work with an interconnected network of a few hundred of those people over the years. I don’t have much experience with huge organizations of tens of thousands, but I have to believe it’s harder in huge workplaces to form large numbers of lasting relationships. It’s harder when you come and go after just a few years. And if you work for a small organization, you just have fewer people to network with.

So sticking with a middle-sized company for a long time seems to be a good way to form a broad, solid network.

4 Use social media

I didn’t build my network with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but I certainly use it to keep in touch.

I also make meaningful connections in groups, like Facebook groups for writers and public speakers.

And there is the blog, of course.

Social media is the glue that holds the network together. It also makes up for the weaknesses in my memory, because I can use it to look up who people are, and to contact them even though I lack their emails or phone numbers.

5 Be an expert, not just helpful

This one is a bit counterintuitive. Networking is supposed to depend on your ability to help other people. But help them with what? What are you good at?

I have spent the last 25 years as an expert on one thing or another. I blogged. I wrote books. I gave speeches. People who know I am.

I am not, however, such a huge expert that I’m deluged with queries. I can handle the questions I get, and not only that, I like to help those folks. Sometimes that turns into business, and sometimes it just make me another friend.

Is this really good networking advice

If you want to rapidly build your network, my advice is useless to you, because it takes lots of time — decades.

But if you want to build a solid network, it may help. My advice is based on being curious, being helpful, and doing a good job. Even if you suck at networking, as I do, you need to do your job. These are just a few tips on how to do it in a way that will support you later in your career.

You’ll notice that a lot of these are not just about how to do you job, but about where to work. Collaborative, outward facing, stable workplaces help; competitive, cloistered, tumultuous employers don’t.

You might want to keep this in mind the next time you’re looking for a new position.

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  1. Thoughtful and well-said, as always, Josh! My way of expressing some of what you wrote has long been: Be kind and be helpful to people, without keeping score, and investments in The Bank of Good Karma always seem to pay sweet dividends.