Networking, not degrees: why and how it contributes to career success

There is a saying that ‘a degree only gets you an interview, not a job’. In part, this is why forming social networks are a key aspect in find new career opportunities and information. Like entrepreneurs who are always searching for the right people, you should invest in your social network to grow the start-up that is your career.

Relationships matter because every job inevitably requires a person to interact with colleagues and clients.

Essentially, companies are organisations of people. People develop the technology, create the mission statement and are the main source of opportunities, resources, and information. People also act as the gatekeepers, such as the interviewer or HR manager who determines whether the interviewee wins the job. These gatekeepers are more likely to let people in if they already have a relationship with them beforehand. Evidence from studies conducted by Jeffrey Pfeffer shows that job promotions are dependent more on strong relationships with others, rather than competence. The main reason for this is that a slightly less competent person who gets along with others and is a team player is better for the company than someone who is 100% competent but isn’t cooperative.

Another reason why relationships matter is because the people you spend time with shape your behaviour and beliefs, and you eventually imitate their actions and absorb their values. Since behaviour and beliefs are ‘infectious’, you become similar to people around you. For example, in the case of the Paypal Mafia; the group of former Paypal employees and founders that all went and founded additional technology companies based on the trust and support ties formed during at Paypal.

Stories of a self-made man make for an interesting narrative but are misleading. Benjamin Franklin’s own Autobiography was written as a self-made story. Perhaps it is easier to tell stories that concentrate on the self-made man; the visionary individualist, at the exclusion of others. Such narratives hide the friends, allies, and colleagues who were pivotal in Franklin’s success.

Social networks consist of relationships that can be romantic or familial; the key differences in relationships will depend on the context. Our most common relationships are usually categorised into professional or personal. Personal relationships include close personal friends and family. Your relationship status on Facebook may be a point of interest for all, and you may share similar hobbies and ideals. Professional relationships include colleagues, industry acquaintances, customers, and clients. These people may know your work address but not your personal email address. No one really cares about your relationship status and it is shared business goals and professional interests that bring you together.

People generally know each other either in a personal or professional context due to etiquette and expectations. Competing loyalties as a good friend and a professional can make a difficult relationship. For example, it may be uncomfortable to be a referee for a friend if you believe he is not truly qualified. Speaking out and telling him may cause resentment, and that is why people tend to keep personal and professional relationships separate.

Building a social network requires a strong foundation of genuine relationships. This means relationships should not be transactional; pursuing relationships based on what other people can do for them. Neither should it be a person approach networking as a game to collect as many business cards as possible. True relationship builders try to help the other person before asking for help. They don’t keep score or act in a calculated manner. Instead of having a lot of contacts, relationship builders focus on high-quality relationships over quantity. Relationship building in the professional context is similar to dating. There are many considerations to take into account: whether you like him or her, the capacity for the person to build your assets, aspirations, and position you competitively, and whether you can do the same back.

The first steps to take in networking are to empathise and help first. Relationship builders see the world in the other person’s shoes by empathising. They are also constantly concerned how they can help and collaborate with the other person. Research that compared differences between effective negotiators and average negotiators revealed that effective negotiators spent more time searching for shared interests, asking questions of the other peers and forging common ground. Effective negotiators spent more time on figuring out how to deliver benefits to the other person instead of driving a hard bargain out of self-interest. In summary, instead of asking ‘What’s in it for me?’, shift your questions to ask instead ‘What’s in it for us?’

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