Networking can, at times, feel downright slimy. How many times have you dragged yourself to a conference or a business mixer only to be confronted by a guy with slick hair in a fancy suit handing out business cards like they were candy? People like this–who are fixtures at networking events–appear on the prowl to find people who will help them get a new job, VC funding, a book deal, or whatever else will help their careers. They give the impression that cultivating professional relationships is about using other people as a means to an end.
It’s enough to want to make you go home, shower, and swear off networking altogether. Unfortunately, that’s not really an option. Building a strong network of connections is crucial to career success. In fact, in many industries, it is the only way to even get through the door. A full 70% of jobs are found through networking, and 40% of job seekers say they found their dream job though a personal connection. Entrepreneurs who are well-connected to venture-capital networks are more likely to secure funding at every stage of their business.
Selena Soo, founder of self-branding consultancy S2 Groupe, says that networking does not need to feel transactional. “In my mind, I translate networking to be a way of helping people,” she tells Fast Company. On the surface, this might sound naive, but Soo makes the case that this is a pragmatic approach. “With any relationship, there is a cycle of giving and receiving,” she says. “If you lead with taking, you won’t be successful because it will turn people off. But people who give to their social circles naturally reap benefits.” But just as importantly, this is a much more empowered way to think about your career: It forces you to realize that you are not a needy person who needs to rely on others to succeed, and focuses on the many things you have to offer the world.
Most people, particularly those who are earlier in their careers, feel they do not have anything to offer their older or more senior counterparts. This isn’t true, and Soo says that this kind of thinking often springs from a lack of confidence. “Many people fear that they don’t have any value to add to the lives of those they admire,” she says. “They treat people higher up on the career ladder as if they were somehow out of reach or somehow better than them. But the moment you put someone on a pedestal is the moment they start looking down at you.”
The dynamic shifts when you see networking as an opportunity to explore what you can do to help others. Before launching into your networking efforts, Soo recommends spending a moment to take stock of your skills, experiences, and connections. Then, when you start meeting new people, focus not on what they can do for you, but on what you might be able to do for them. “If you are at an event and you’ve just met an inspiring new person, you should ask them about themselves, rather than trying to pitch yourself,” Soo says. “You could ask them about what they find challenging at their job or what their biggest goals are.”
You might be surprised by how you might be able help, even if you are far lower on the totem pole. For instance, a CEO mentions that she is having trouble finding good interns or a personal assistant, and you offer to help her place an ad in your alma mater’s career-services newsletter. Or you might know of recent graduates who are looking for the positions she wants to fill.
Even if you don’t have the opportunity to have a frank and intimate conversation, you can still try to preempt other people’s needs by thinking about what motivates them. “You want to offer value, but remember that value is in the eye of the beholder,” Soo says. People who have chosen to be in the public eye and share their work with large audiences generally want to feel like they are making a difference. If you genuinely admire what others have done–whether it is a book that they’ve written or a company they’ve built–she suggests dropping them a quick line telling them so. This isn’t about flattering them. There are already plenty of other people doing that. It is about providing thoughtful, specific feedback and getting on their radar.
If you are with a business leader who seems like he is struggling with not having enough time, this is another opportunity for you to be of service. If you happen to be plugged into the latest productivity apps, you might be able to suggest a tool that might help him make a task more efficient. If you’re particularly skilled at hiring, you might offer to vet résumés for a particular role that person is trying to fill.
Thinking of networking as an opportunity to help others might seem absurdly optimistic, but in Soo’s experience, this approach is far more effective than going into a new professional relationship guns blazing, asking for favors. “People sometimes fail to realize that relationships are always mutual,” she says. “Even when there is a power differential, both parties should be interested in helping and supporting one another.” People who have risen to the top of their field are used to others making demands on their time. They are often able to spot very quickly when someone is trying to take advantage of them. On the flip side, they can also tell when people are genuinely interested in building a relationship.
Soo’s approach takes a long view of networking. Many people go to professional events with a specific goal in mind, and are anxious to make things happen quickly. This mindset tends to make people appear very intense and self-interested, which is a huge turnoff. To avoid putting yourself in this situation, Soo recommends making networking a part of your everyday routine, rather than relying on it only when you are desperate.
“Build your network way before you need it,” she says. You could try to connect with one person a week, perhaps someone you admire or who has done interesting work in your industry, or is in a field you would like to learn about. It’s a fairly modest goal, but over time, if you keep up with these relationships, you’ll find yourself with a solid network of people who trust you and are in your corner.