Dear graduates of the class of 2022,
Early in my career I had a deep dislike for tribal activities known as networking.
I’d grown up with the mantra that you got ahead in life by who you knew rather than what you could do, let alone how well. If you had the right connections, a contact in an influential position, the orthodoxy went, you could get the right job, the right role, the right salary.
Oh, but in my 20s I knew better than to play the Old Boy Network game. After all, we Americans by birth and heritage are proud to live in a meritocracy, right? The cornerstone premise that was very close to my heart was that if you prepare properly for your job and career and demonstrate your qualifications fully, that is enough. Quality of performance would prevail, eclipsing every other consideration. Employers would sprint to hire your services. Doors would swing wide open, all to the tune of “Ode to Joy.”
Why my opposition to networking, which the Cambridge English Dictionary defines as “the activity of meeting people who might be useful to know, especially in your job”? Because to me, that tradition felt like cheating at the time. I grew up as an adult in the extremely skeptical, even cynical 1970s, weaned from Watergate. You probably became an agent with the CIA because you went to Yale. You most likely practiced law in a prestigious Wall Street law firm because your father used to play golf with their managing partner every Friday morning. They pulled strings and cut the bureaucracy. And so on, ad infinitum and ad nauseum.
In short, networking felt fundamentally unfair, even downright corrupt. You only spoiled people for your own benefit and in an attempt to circumvent existing gatekeeper protocols. In seeking recommendations and referrals, you wanted to trick the system and take undue advantage of nothing more than manipulating a roulette wheel.
My relentless resistance to networking continued into my 30s, even when I quit my job to venture full-time freelance, just when the practice of running the vine would have served me best. For me it was still about the question: Were you good at what you do? And to my ironclad belief that if you were indeed a good thing, it would automatically be recognized and rewarded.
But as it turns out, following the so-called straight and narrow route, always a breakaway, just pretty much got me nowhere. Then, as I was approaching 40, a breakthrough. I took a job in a new profession and immediately hated it – hated my boss, hated her boss, hated the job itself. Fortunately, I didn’t mention my misery to a friend, expecting only to express my grief. He happened to know someone who was looking for someone like me. I was hired within a few days.
Better still, I loved the new job and am still friends to this day with my former boss who is now 97 years old. This job propelled me to a 21-year career as a senior manager at global professional services companies. All credit goes to unknowing networking.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned from stories my family told me that both of my grandfathers’ success as entrepreneurs was primarily due to networking. A grandfather, a former bar owner, became wealthy investing in real estate through a friend’s tip. The other, an accountant, acquired numerous clients through a highly enterprising brother-in-law.
Eventually, albeit slowly and even suspiciously, I made a conscious attempt to network. With this new path I secured jobs, clients, commissions, lawyers, agents, blurbs for a book and even career opportunities for our son and daughter. Today I would be out as a consultant without the compound interest of networking.
I regret coming so late to my understanding and appreciation of the value of networking. Call that naive at best. And stupid at worst. Otherwise I might have accelerated 15 years of arduous progress. Made more money too.
Let’s be honest: we are born networks. What do we think children do on a playground all afternoon? Networking promotes efficiency, consolidates power and builds reputation. The exchange of favors is Darwinian. The leverage exerted thrives on the strength of collaboration, collaboration and generosity of spirit.
Everyone knows someone who can help, or knows someone who knows someone who could. If you want to lend a hand, you often only have to lend a hand.
Bob Brody, consultant and essayist, is the author of the memoir “Playing tag with strangers: A family guy (reluctantly) comes of age.”
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/dear-college-grads-i-used-to-think-networking-was-tacky-now-i-know-its-the-most-valuable-thing-you-can-do-11653590875?rss=1&siteid=rss Opinion: Dear graduates, I used to think networking was cheesy. Now I know it’s the most valuable thing you can do