Do you really need to network to get ahead? You might wish you didn’t have to. Sure, the appetizers at those networking events are tasty. But do you really need to spend more time talking with strangers you would never invite for dinner? Yes you do, but mostly you need to imagine a life where you can learn something from anyone.
An interesting debate emerged in August 2017 between two big names, and their arguments deserve a closer look. Adam Grant, who has an exceptional TED podcast called Work Life, proposed that networking wasn’t that big of a deal in achieving career success. Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of my favorite counter-intuitive business authors, respectfully disagreed.
Grant provided several examples of people who worked hard at developing an exceptional talent or creating something novel, who were only then picked up by an established social network. He noted that there are many cases of people trying and failing to use networking to advance their careers in the absence of underlying talent. Those who develop a meaningful contribution are more likely to get noticed. The subsequent networking is a consequence, not a driver.
Pfeffer did a good job of acknowledging that being excellent in more ways than one is important. However, he asserted that there is a major distinction between talented people who are not networked, and those who got networked and achieved career breakthrough afterwards.
Pfeffer and Grant agree on a core point, which is that people should aspire to become intrinsically excellent and then extend that excellence with robust networking. They are just debating what-causes-what. I think that everything causes everything else, and that it’s often ridiculous and pointless to find one thing that’s driving everything. For example, I propose that all of those successfully networked people got a great night’s sleep, and their sleep is the main driver of both the intrinsic talent and the excellent networking. That’s just a little example of how easy it is to choose a single driver of excellence. You can always take it back one step and find one thing that is even more important.
In terms of applying the research to our daily efforts, the key issue is to understand network diversity. As a sociological puzzle, it is strange and disturbing how we’re attracted to people who are just like us, how we expect our friends to like each other, and how we get sucked into tiny little cliques of like-minded people. All of these cliques are confirmation-bias echo-chambers filled with ideas and opportunities that only go in circles.
In an article at Entrepreneur magazine, networking expert Ivan Misner emphasizes the importance of diversity in networking efforts. He describes the experience of his colleague Patti Salvucci who arrived early at a networking event in Boston. She struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was laying out coffee mugs for the meeting. She noticed his great voice and asked about it. It turns out that he used to be a commentator on CNN and had interviewed several public figures including JFK, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He had downshifted and moved to be closer to his daughter. Later at the event, there was another person who confessed that he wanted to start a radio talk show but had no idea where to start. Salvucci recommended he talk to the gentleman who was helping with the coffee, explaining the back-story. Nice connection!
That story shows new opportunities, but sometimes it’s about new opinions. When I was coming around to the realization that I was an atheist, I had a conversation with a colleague about my expectation that everything can be figured out. She had her own spiritual values, and she pressed me on whether it’s possible to have a deep admiration for the unknown. Pshaw, I said, people who lead society shouldn’t be obliging us to believe in anything that lacks evidence. That was my impulse. But her comment grew on me.
A year later I came back to her and confessed that the reason I always pursue evidence is that I am deeply passionate about the unknown. She was happy to leave-be the unknown, and to experience the joy of being surprised by the unexpected. I wanted to overcome the unknown as an obstacle, as an adventure in the pursuit of research and wisdom. We had two variants of a similar opinion. I had to fess-up that she had a great point, and that she had shaken me from a smugness.
Maintaining your cliques is what keeps you in your place. By contrast, the disruption of the established order is largely achieved by finding unusual connections with people who make you uncomfortable in some way. In order to make new connections in untapped areas, you must be brave and choose discomfort. And while maintaining discomfort during civil conversations, you must be curious about the opinions of those you at first think have it wrong. This important work is impossible to do if you lack humility. If you think you have figured everything out, you need to suspend your disbelief, and consider that others can change you for the better. Ask others where they are coming from, get sincere and uncomfortable, and play with the idea of changing your perspective. It’s hard work, but it’s usually the only way to get away from the tried-and-true.
Sincere networking isn’t one thing. It’s several things; attempting courage, enduring discomfort, developing curiosity, feeling a sense of humility, and changing perspectives. If you do all of that in one day, you’ll sleep heavily that night. And when you wake up in the morning, you might realize that you can accomplish anything.