Career Path

Networking in the 21st Century

Once again, technology and millennials are rewriting the rules.

5 min read

It seems innocent enough: Peg, an apparent friend of a friend of a friend, has asked to connect with you on LinkedIn. The thing is, you’ve never met Peg—until now, you’d never even heard of her. The only message she has sent is the default: “Hi, I’d like to join your LinkedIn network.” But she does work at Google, and you know that someone who works at Google might be a good person to know. Do you accept?

Every day, more and more of us must make these decisions—decisions that are minor in the moment but speak to our broader view of what it means to build relationships. Some of us take a hard stance against random requests, accepting only people we consider friends and colleagues. Others cast a wide net, accepting anyone who wants to connect in the hopes that something good may come out of it—or, at the very least, that their professional network will look quantitatively robust. And still others are somewhere in the middle, unconvinced that there’s one right way.

“Technology has increased the ambiguity of networking, making it difficult to form genuine relationships.”

Indeed, technology has made it possible for us to connect (virtually) with (virtually) anyone, creating a fertile ground for all kinds of networking opportunities. But it’s also upped the ambiguity, making it difficult for many people to determine where and how to forge genuine, fruitful relationships. In fact, nearly half of people 18 to 34 surveyed by LinkedIn say their top barriers to networking are not knowing what to say or how to reconnect.

Much of that challenge is that different people are triggered by different things. “For me, there’s nothing quite like the pain of getting an email that says ‘I’d love to pick your brain more about your profession,’ says Mike MacCombie, director of platform at New York City-based FF Venture Capital. “That’s saying ‘I want more of your time because it helps me.’”

A self-professed “community geek,” MacCombie, 29, is a believer that the best professional relationships come from a simple philosophy: Friends first, business later. Every month since January of last year, he’s hosted an event called Open Mike Night where he brings together 120 to 150 people from different backgrounds and industries at a bar in New York City. At these gatherings, there are no name tags or business cards, and there’s a very clear rule: Your first question when meeting someone cannot be “What do you do?”

The reason echoes a truth that good networkers innately know: Great opportunities can come from the least likely sources.

“The most lucrative deals, beneficial convos, or positive outcomes came from people I met through people I had met with no professional intent,” MacCombie says. By starting conversations with something other than “What do you do?” there’s an opportunity for people to find genuine commonalities and forge the basis of a real connection. Bonding over things that have nothing to do with work also helps people continue to stay in touch whether work is involved or not.

“If it’s just about business, as soon as that common business goes away, you have nothing to talk about and the relationship ends,” says MacCombie.

Open Mike Night is an example of a broader trend among workers, particularly millennials, to seek out alternatives to the traditional buttoned-up networking event. In the new wave of events, which includes everything from meditation meetups to undercover Capture the Flag to adult summer camp, purpose and mission are often at the center. It makes sense: Millennials are more purpose-driven than any generation before them.

“With corporate networking events, there’s often something lacking in terms of purpose or interest,” says David Ginchansky, a career coach at Korn Ferry. “Today, it’s not about networking for networking’s sake, but about connecting around a common interest or goal.”

No matter what the venue, experts say networking in the 21th century starts out with a more service-oriented approach. “When you focus on the other person and less on yourself, people respond better. It’s about being interested versus interesting,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette coach and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. In practical terms, it could be as simple as following up a conversation by emailing an article relevant to something you spoke about, inviting someone to an event they’d find interesting, or seeking out ways to help them achieve some personal or professional goal.

Another important thing to remember is that people have different preferences and expectations when it comes to following up. Experts say the best advice is to simply ask. Whitmore suggests asking, “Say, what’s the best way for us to communicate?” or “Is it OK to text you and stay in touch that way?” If you connect on Facebook or LinkedIn, take the 30 seconds to wish someone a happy birthday or congratulate them on a work anniversary, but avoid blowing up their inbox with daily newsletters. “You don’t want to be a pest and you don’t want to be a stalker.”

As you build relationships, make your ask. Be humble about it—always use phrases like “If you would feel comfortable referring me” or “If you’d be willing,” says Ginchansky. And don’t be open-ended in your requests: If you’re asking someone to chat, offer them some times—don’t just say, “Send me times you’re available.” If you’re more specific, you’ll have a better chance of a positive response, says Ginchansky.

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