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Reframing the Conversation around Networking

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

I am starting to feel like George Carlin. There just seems to be certain “dirty words” when it comes to talking about leadership and the first dirty word is “leadership” itself. But, I have already discussed that (and the word “creativity”) in other blog posts. Today’s word to burn is “networking.” This one is no surprise. When students (and even many adults) see the word “networking” they see blood sucking parasites feeding off its host. Sorry, maybe that was too graphic. But, for sure, they see a one way street where they are using someone else for some personal or professional gain. Most sources say that about 70% of jobs are acquired through networking. So, as a college professor who wants professional success for her students, it is imperative that I disabuse students of the notion of “networking” being a bad word.

If you look up the word “networking” you will find a definition like this one:

“interact with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career.”

Yet the word “network” produces this definition:

“a group or system of interconnected people or things.”

Why is it when the noun becomes a verb it sounds so less appealing?

We talk quite a bit about re-framing in our teamwork course. By this I mean learning to look at things in a less conventional format. Break down artificial barriers that cause you not to think openly. The lexicon around leadership may need to change for students to embrace its lessons, and for me this starts by redefining “networking” as “developing relationships.” That is, after all, what they are doing when they network. Relationships range from life long partnerships, to good friends, friends, casual acquaintances, to colleagues or social media contacts. When you see networking in this way, it suddenly becomes something we all desire and do every day and most of us are rather adept with it. In fact, college students are super familiar with this pursuit. For each of them it was only a short time ago that they came to a new place where they knew no one and had to immediately start networking; oh I mean, developing relationships.

Once you get over “it,” you realize, networking is just talking to people — all people. And, when you go into it with the mindset that I have something to learn and something to potentially give to everyone I met, then you realize that networking is really about connection, empathy and sharing. In one of my classes students have to meet two new adults and talk to them until they learn five new things about them and create a connection — something they have in common. Students grimace when I announce the assignment, but when it is over, they have a two new people in their lives. I have had students start a real conversation with the person that checks them out in the food line to find out about that person’s family, hobbies and joys. Both parties leave the conversation with a smile on their face. I have had students start conversations with their friend’s parents who they have “known” for years, but actually knew nothing about. Suddenly this person is more than Susie’s dad, but a guy named Mark, who served in the military, volunteers as a Big Brother, and actually has a brother in the industry the student hopes to enter. And, in certain situations, students have gone into professors’s offices and actually sat down to have a real conversation with them and have come back to my class with a summer job or a research opportunity, (and they didn’t even go in there to ask for anything other than to chit-chat).

Seems to me in all these situations, both my students and the parties they talked to benefited from the connection made. In our lives, we will need things from others, and we will give things to others. It is vital to teach our students that all connections add something to our lives, and thereby also add something to the lives we connected with. Students often think they don’t have anything valuable to give to people they “network” with. Here I think the issue has to do with how we assign meaning to the word “value.” It sounds like there will be monetary gain involved. Value is the worth of something to the recipient. My mother values greatly a phone call from her grand daughter in college, but it isn’t worthy anything monetarily. Value isn’t always about money or opportunities. It often comes with feeling cared for, seen or appreciated. And, the truth is that many people value the opportunity to help others.

I tell students talk to everyone. Listen to their stories. Tell yours. Every connection you make enriches your life. At the end of the day, it would be great if we stopped talking about networking as a separate entity that students and professionals need to do to get a job. We should be encouraging everyone to talk, share stories and listen to each other. If we start young, it could become a life practice. It will enrich our lives, bring us closer together, and help us understand one another — our circles will be larger and our understanding of people different than us, greater. It may even enable those in government to work together towards common ends, and, it will, of course, help us land professional opportunities.

Kaufman, Wendy. “A Successful Job Search. It’s all about Networking.” NPR, Nov. 16, 2010. successful-job-search-its-all-about-networking

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