How to get out of the catch-22 of networking?
January 2, 2013 12:03 PM   Subscribe

How to get out of the catch-22 of networking? I'm trying to overcome the barrier of having to give in order to get.

I'm reading up on how to be more effective when building a network, and one of the things that keeps popping up is the idea that you have to offer something of value to the people you want to connect with. This gives them a reason to start a relationship with you. But if you're just starting out, you don't have anything to bring to the table. What do you do?
posted by never nice to Work & Money (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
People sometimes make something of nothing. Like if you don't have anything to bring to the table, you sort of do anyway. You "bring new perspectives" or you bring a "mentoring opportunity". You could potentially allow a mentor to teach (which they ostensibly like to do) or you could also end up being a protege.

You could also bring skills you've been accumulating in other life experience to the table, with explanation, justification and perhaps even practice/experience doing it. Like say you're a geek who for a hobby has been using free Sketchup software to do 3D modelling for 3D printing and you want to start networking with architects. Interestingly, architects also have interest in Sketchup for prototyping and displaying their designs. You could bring that skill to the table.

I think in networking, it behooves you to, instead of bypassing the expectation of bringing something to the table, innovate, and create interest and things to bring from what you have or what you can get.
posted by kalessin at 12:09 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

But if you're just starting out, you don't have anything to bring to the table.

You have time, if nothing else. You can always do favors for people. But even without that, sometimes people just want friends they can talk about sports with or whatever. Just go places, introduce yourself, remember people's names, listen to them talk. You'll see opportunities arise where you can be helpful to people. Most people aren't that mercenary about their relationships, in any case.
posted by empath at 12:10 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes just having an interest in a topic is enough to "give." If you're starting from scratch in a new field, for example, figure out a topic in that field that interests you and find people who focus on that topic. Talk to them, express your interest, ask them if they have any favorite articles from the past year that focuses on that topic, and go from there.

Also, I've always found that networking meet-ups are sort of built on the basis of people conversing with one another without necessarily having some expertise to offer. The ones that are labeled as happy hour get-togethers are especially like this-- you just go and chat with people and there's no pressure for everyone to be an expert at something.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:10 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of people who network in a business sense start with a built-in network from their undergraduate days and their professional programs: people they can talk to about careers, people who will alert them to opportunities, that sort of thing. Now, I graduated with a dorky social science degree and most of my friends were from allied disciplines, so my "network" is perpetual grad students, Fulbright winners, and "independent documentary filmmakers." You might have better luck if you graduated in a more career-oriented discipline. My university and many others also offer "networking tools," such as databases of alumni contacts. In my experience, though, a lot of those contacts are outdated and the conversations I did have never yielded much of use. So yeah, "network" with your friends and peers by talking to them about what they do, where they are doing it, and what their future plans entail.
posted by Nomyte at 12:12 PM on January 2, 2013

This has not been my experience at all. There's that old adage that, when venturing out into the world, you will meet whoever you expect to meet, so it's a good idea to approach networking as though most people are friendly and helpful, but also have limited and valuable time.

Many, many people like to make new professional connections. Many, many people like to offer advice - which is free.

A great networking strategy is to ask people out for coffee for 30 minutes to get advice, or to ask questions about a particular topic.

You don't have to offer anything at all, except you MUST promise to keep in touch every 3 months, or send an update if you have achieved some sort of professional success. That's etiquette.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:12 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, what do you do well? In my network (mostly independent writers/analysts), we help each other improve our resumes, talk about work, listen and encourage. We go to events that are relevant to our interests, or go to lunch and gab about work. We bounce ideas about future projects and how to handle sticky situations.

What I've discovered is that people LIKE to help each other. I like fixing people's resumes. I like supporting my friends and passing along work to them when I can. That's something of value -- the satisfaction of knowing you've made an impact on someone's life. It's a pleasure to be a mentor.
posted by mochapickle at 12:13 PM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

The openness and willingness to do something is often more important than the actual doing in networking. The requests for actual help won't actually come in that often. Also, if you are young and starting out experienced professionals will implicitly understand that they can probably do a lot more for you than vice versa. And that is fine. Never under estimate how much value some people get from helping others.
posted by COD at 12:29 PM on January 2, 2013

Don't overthink it, really.

First, networking isnt generally about asking people for something, like a job, it is about getting referrals to something that might get you closer to something you are seeking. As a result, most of what you are giving and getting isnt something with an easy and immediately quantifiable value. Most of what you get will have no immediate obvious value.

Most people aren't keeping a formal score. The chances that some request will be rebuffed because your networking account is currently overdrawn is vanishgly small, particularly in proportion to the times when the other person simply doesn't have anything you need at that particular time.

Moreover, when you get something you want out of networking there is generally a counterparty who got something they wanted too. Maybe you got a referral that turned into a paying project for you, well, whoever made that referral just gave your new client a solution to finishing a project they had.

Don't assume you have nothing to offer. You don't know that going in. Whether or not you have anything to offer, be efficient. Be efficient in setting up your meetings/phone calls. Be on time. Get to the point about what you are looking for (as best as you know at the time). Give them opportunity early in the conversation to talk about their own interests/needs and ask them if they don't do it themselves. Listen carefully to their questions and answers. Try to offer them something you think they'd benefit from during the conversation, or after in an email, even if it is only an link to an interesting relevant article. Be efficient, but allow room for serindipity. You might find yourself talking about your favorite summer camp experince and unexpectedly give them the perfect gift idea for their nephew. At the end, be gracious. Afterwords, spend 15 minutes thinking about how you might be able to help them out in the future, maybe make a few notes in your addressbook, so if you do come across something for them, you'll remember.
posted by Good Brain at 12:52 PM on January 2, 2013

You are an entire person.
posted by krilli at 1:04 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

one of the things that keeps popping up is the idea that you have to offer something of value to the people you want to connect with. This gives them a reason to start a relationship with you.

What? No.

I mean, it's nice if you have something tangible to offer. But many people will talk with you, answer questions, point you in the right direction, and even refer to you to job openings just because they met you. Why? Well,

-Some believe in paying it forward. Most people have been in a situation where a more-experienced person guided them, and they pay this back by helping the next generation of workers.

-Some are just nice. They help people because they want to.

-Some consider everyone a potential contact. Right now you may not have much to offer, but in 10 years you may be in a position to help the person who helps you now, and people act accordingly.

-Some just like talking about their industry and getting people involved.

-Some do it to stroke their ego. It gives them a boost to say that they helped someone get on their feet; it indicates that the helper is important and accomplished.

For most people, it's a combination of these factors. For example, I take calls from the college seniors who find my name in an alumni database. They have nothing to offer me. But I like talking about my job and industry because I find it interesting. I like helping people. I know that these students may, years down the road, be a good contact. And frankly, it makes me feel important an reminds me that I've come a long way. I like all of that stuff, so I network with people who have nothing tangible to offer me and probably never will. I think I'm the rule, not the exception.

If I were you, I would go into networking assuming that just by asking questions and communicating with these people, you are giving something back. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People if you haven't; a very important lesson in it is that when you give people a chance to talk about themselves and their interests (including their work), you're truly giving them something most people like.
posted by Tehhund at 1:39 PM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here are a few ideas:

(1) You want a job, right? Eventually they will know of someone who needs help, and being able to recommend you earns them networking points. Small businesses often have periods where there's not enough work and then periods when there is way too much work. Interviewing strangers is time consuming and annoying when you're busy.

(2) People like attention. If you you are really interested and impressed with someone's career, that is really enough to make the half hour informational interview worthwhile.

(3) If you really pay attention to what your contacts do and what they need, you may be able to hook them up with each other. That is a valuable service.

(4) It never hurts to ask. Say that you want to get involved with their career field or organization and ask if they know of any special projects, volunteer events, etc that you could help with. The work you can do will not be glamorous, but there is always work to be done. You will find that it is absurdly easy to find people who will let you do as much free work as you want, and in turn you earn credibility.

(5) However inexperienced you are now, you might as well assume that in ten years you'll be phenomenally successful. Maybe you'll refer them a stream of new clients. Maybe you'll turn the company around. Maybe you'll back up their unpopular idea and help sell it to the board of directors. Or whatever. They know these things are possible and that having lunch with you is a good investment.

Good luck!
posted by steinwald at 1:42 PM on January 2, 2013

Give courtesy. Give an appreciation for the other's experience, expertise, time or interest. Give thanks for their attention. Give acknowledgement of their taking the time out for you. Give a followup email. Give credit where its due.
posted by infini at 1:57 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Be prepared to give nothing of value until someone around you suggests how they could otherwise spend their time. There's your in, if of course you're really interested. Go get a sales pitch, play golf, get really drunk, swim in a warm pool. The opportunities for networking for free after networking events is unlimited.
posted by parmanparman at 3:26 PM on January 2, 2013

Nthing Tehund's comment about "paying it forward." Steinwald and Infini's advice also resonated with me. I'm at the mid-way point in my career, with about 18 years of experience in my industry. I've made tons of mistakes, but also got a lot of help from people who were mentors to me (some intentional, some unintentional). I'm more than happy to pay it forward and now give lots of advice and help to kids just out of college who are just getting started in their careers. My main criteria for helping is (a) a connection to my alma mater and/or (b) a good attitude/being willing to listen. If you are just starting out and don't have a concrete "give", just be courteous and appreciative of the advice or help you are getting, and have a good intention to be helpful at a later date. I'll throw a book reference in for good measure: Keith Ferrazzi's "Never Eat Alone". One of Ferrazzi's key points is that you can't keep score in networking and treat everything as a quid pro quo transaction; the relationship should be genuine.
posted by kovacs at 5:56 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the responses. It's been hard for me to appear positive and competent during my job search (since deep down I'm angry and frustrated over not finding full-time work - see previous questions for the whole story.)

many people will talk with you, answer questions, point you in the right direction, and even refer to you to job openings just because they met you.

Maybe it's the industry I'm in, but I have not found this to be the case. I'm not sure if it's my approach or if people see me as the newbie who'll undercut their rates for work or something. :/
posted by never nice at 7:01 AM on January 3, 2013

The more you network, the more people you'll know. Look for opportunities to connect those people to each other. That's networking in it's purest form, and it requires no special expertise on your part. The value of any relationships you put together is the "something" you're looking for.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:36 AM on January 3, 2013

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