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I’ve always loathed networking. Here’s why a virtual format makes it bearable

The president of a robotics firm says he begins by letting go of a quid-pro-quo mindset.

I’ve always loathed networking. Here’s why a virtual format makes it bearable
[Source photo: Antenna/Unsplash]
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I have a confession to make. Since college, I’ve been keeping a list.

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It started with a few dozen names scrawled on a piece of paper: friends, colleagues, and professors I wanted to keep in touch with. I carried that crumpled piece of paper with me for years, adding names each time I met someone who caught my interest. A few decades later, that list has since migrated to the notes section of my phone, where it continues to grow. During a year filled with lockdown and remote working, it’s proved more useful than ever.

While a lot of people have been forced to pivot their networking online this past year, I’ve been doing this for decades. Scaling startups from one city to another, I’ve learned how essential it is to foster connections during times when you can’t be physically present.

With a remote-first future awaiting many of us, this ability to network at a distance is arguably more important than ever. Here are a few hard-won lessons from a lifelong remote networker, including the most important of all: Don’t consider it networking.

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I’ve learned how essential it is to foster connections during times when you can’t be physically present.

Let go of the ROI mindset

I don’t like networking for the sake of getting something from someone. A study conducted by the University of Toronto, Harvard, and Northwestern found that people felt physically dirty when it came to “calculated” networking, which was perceived as inherently selfish.

It doesn’t have to be that way, even in a remote context. Sales guru and author Zig Ziglar penned one of the most famous quotes on networking when he said, “you can get everything you want in life if you will just help other people get what they want.”

To me, the key is starting off on the right foot; a lasting relationship is rooted in simple curiosity and finding common ground, not a quid pro quo. And rather than fixating on difference, keep an open mind to find a point of connection.

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Back in pre-pandemic times, I once had a new client pick me up for lunch in a rusty clunker with a hole in the floor by my feet. I was ready to write him off until we got onto the subject of investing, turns out he was an early investor in Microsoft, who turned $2,000 into a fortune. I told myself to never prejudge someone again, and we stayed in contact for years.

Play calendar Whac-A-Mole

Another key: in networking situations, someone always needs to play the role of “connector.” Put your pride aside and be that person, rather than expecting someone else to initiate. Effective networking rarely just happens; it requires a plan and the drive to stick with it.

Take that list I started so many years ago. Compiling it was one thing, but I also made a point of working it. For example, each New Year I’d slip into my contacts and send a simple message to old friends, former colleagues, or future coworkers.

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Finding ways to prioritize your network, even when you’re busy, is critical. London Business School organizational behavior professor Herminia Ibarra may have said it best, “networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority.”

These days, I’ll look at my calendar at the start of each week and search for a random empty slot or two I can fill by spending time with people I haven’t seen in a while. Before the pandemic, my rule was to never eat alone. In the past year, however, it’s been more phone calls and Zoom chats. But being deliberate about sustaining real relationships works. A study by Cornell University examined 165 lawyers, and found their level of success was linked to their attitude towards networking. The more emphasis they placed on creating and maintaining relationships, the more billable hours they raked in.

Rethink social media 

COVID-19 has definitely taken a cut out of in-person networking, but for all its disruptions, the pandemic has also highlighted the virtues of a digital-first approach. Video chat can be a networking boon. Though not quite the same as “being there,” it’s far faster than traveling for meetups, and far more intimate than a simple phone call. The explosion of Zoom during the pandemic has put me face-to-face with people I’ve talked with regularly, but never actually seen before.

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Meanwhile, real networking still can and does happen on social media. But the key is consistency and engagement. Even on busy days, I start each morning with a 15-minute scroll through my platforms, keeping an eye out for ways I can let people know I’m thinking of them. You may wake up and see that I’ve liked a dozen of your Instagram pictures: what my friends jokingly call a “Steve bomb” is my way of catching up.

COVID-19 has altered how we look at networking. But let’s face it—the world was a digital space long before the pandemic, and the fundamentals at play remain unchanged. Building a lasting connection still comes down to the spark of human connection.

Be generous. Be curious. Be intentional. The effort you put into your network will find its way back to you. While some of us may return to some semblance of normal work life soon, remote work will be an increasingly central part of our future. Honing the skills to build and sustain a network at a distance now will only pay dividends in the years ahead.

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Steve Johnson is the president of Berkshire Grey, which builds AI-powered robotic systems to help retailers, e-commerce companies, and logistics providers.