When you think of networking, what is a metaphor that comes to mind? Speed dating? Collecting poker chips to cash in later? Sowing the seeds of future career success?
In a recent article on NatureJobs, Peter Fiske compares the concept of networking with that of valence bands in chemistry. Now, I'm not a scientist, but I am a linguist, so I know a thing or two about valence. (OK, full disclosure, I know exactly two things about linguistic valence: it's a thing and it involves how grammatical elements combine in a sentence.) In scientific fields, valence is related to the combining power of an element. When you think about networking, think about the availability and investment of people in different "shells" that radiate outward from yourself.
- In the first shell of your network are the people you know firsthand. Many young scholars assume that friends and family members in their valence band who are outside their academic field hold little professional networking value. In reality, friends and family members have their own networks, and those networks may contain a few people who might be able to help you in your job search or with career development. And because your friends and family members know and care about you, they are often eager to do whatever they can to help you, including warmly introducing you to anyone in their own networks.
- The second shell of your network (your friends' friends and contacts) plays a huge part in fostering your career progress and development. For one thing, there are a lot of people at this level. If your immediate network consists of 150 people to whom you feel comfortable asking for help, and each of them has a similarly sized network, theoretically, you have a "conduction band" in your network of 22,500 people. At least a few people will be in careers or positions in which they could be of enormous help to you.
- Although the numbers in the third shell of your network (friends of your friends' friends) are huge, their utility in your career is limited. Third-shell people share no personal connection with you and so are not predisposed to help you. If you want to communicate with a third-shell contact, you should first solidify your relationship with the person in your second shell who connects the two of you. In effect, you are turning the second-shell contact into a first-shell friend.
As always, at the heart of networking is maintaining personal relationships. This is where many networking metaphors come up short or set people up for disappointment. Networking is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of endeavor, and no one in your professional network wants to feel like you are just being opportunitistic in connecting with them. Take the time to get to know people and their story. Coincidentally, this will also aid in not feeling sleazy about networking.
And remember that your network operates in two directions: the degree to which you help others is often linked to how much help you yourself receive. Your network becomes stronger through the help that you give. A well-tended and extensive network is one of the most valuable assets for professionals in today's economy. Those who invest in both their work and their relationships will reap the greatest number of opportunities.