Christina Fong’s four tips to becoming a more effective networker in 2015
At the dawn of any new year, it’s human nature to take stock of our lives and plot measures to improve them—losing weight, exercising more, procrastinating less, or whatever the doctor orders. In this new year, however, you might consider addressing an area that can enhance your life, your career and your effectiveness as a leader: networking.
We asked Christina Fong, a senior lecturer in management and faculty member of the Foster School’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, to share some of the networking wisdom she imparts to Foster MBA students.
Foster Unplugged: Are effective networkers born or made?
Christina Fong: There is some research that indicates that your personality does affect the type of network that you tend to be in. That being said, no matter how introverted or extroverted or selfless or Machiavellian you may be, we all can improve our networking effectiveness.
Okay, then, let’s cut to the chase. What can we do in 2015 to become more effective networkers?
There are some specific behaviors we can improve upon. I’d categorize them into four actions:
- Meet new people at networking events.
- Diversify your network.
- Expand your conversation topics.
- Follow your passions (or, don’t try to fake it).
Isn’t meeting new people what networking events are for?
You’d be surprised. Researchers who tracked the interactions of people wearing GPS-embedded nametags found that the vast majority of people at networking events and parties tend to talk only to people they already know. To make the most of a networking opportunity, I urge people to push themselves to break out of their circle of friends and acquaintances, and actually meet new people. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
What do you mean by “diversifying” your network?
There’s a great historical illustration of the power of a diversified network in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” On an April night in 1775, two patriots rode from Boston to inform the nearby citizenry of an impending British attack. One, named William Dawes, had a limited social network that was largely insular: everyone knew everyone else. The other, Paul Revere, had much more expansive network of acquaintances, many of whom did not know each other. This diversity of connections enabled his message to disseminate widely and quickly (and won Revere immortal fame whilst Dawes was relegated to a historical footnote).
What can we learn from this? The most effective networkers are those who connect with others who are dissimilar to themselves. This means knowing people in different industries and walks of life, from different demographic backgrounds and of different ages. We especially encourage more senior executives to connect with younger colleagues.
What’s the point of expanding conversation topics? Shouldn’t networking be focused?
We tend to talk about school with our school friends, church with our church friends, and work with our work friends. But the most effective networkers are able to toggle between different domains of conversation with different people. A great example is the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Heidi Roizen who is famous for blurring the lines between personal and professional in her extensive and powerful network.
Passion is great, but don’t we sometimes have to attend events that don’t really excite us?
Maybe, but don’t expect to get much out of them. Many of our MBAs make the mistake of going to events they think they should attend or where high-powered people will be. But we don’t typically make meaningful connections at such events because we appear calculating as opposed to genuinely interested. When you follow your passion, your body language changes. Your enthusiasm and openness is incredibly attractive.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about networking?
That it needs to be self-serving, viewing people as instruments to our own objectives. Francesca Gino calls this “dirty networking,” and her studies show that it makes us feel literally contaminated. It is not sustainable. If you are trying to use your network only to help yourself, you are not going to be as successful as if you use your network to help other people. At Foster we talk a lot about the work of Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take.” One counterintuitive takeaway from his work: people who spend time giving to others can be more successful, over time, than those who take from their networks or try to broker a fair exchange of giving and taking.
How can you be a giver without being taken advantage of?
As Grant points out, the most successful givers schedule particular times that they dedicate to helping other people. They also develop some particular expertise to offer their network, some added value that complements the expertise of others. Finally, they recognize that helping others—in a controlled and intentional fashion—actually relieves their own stress, and makes them more productive, even during their busiest periods.
How does effective networking lead to more effective leadership?
You can’t be a leader by yourself. The most influential and effective leaders, especially in the long run, are those who build communities in which it’s easy for everyone to help everyone else. Connectors. Catalysts. Changing the way we think about networking—from how to use people to how to help people—is often a first step in becoming a better relational leader.
With some work, this is attainable to any personality type. Many of our MBAs enter the Foster School thinking I can either help myself or others. But the big “aha” moment is that these are not mutually exclusive. Helping others doesn’t mean you’re not helping yourself. Most of the time, our self-interests are aligned with helping others.
Christina Fong’s tips on networking are adapted from the Foster School’s LEAD, a leadership development course for incoming MBAs. Learn more here.