Almost nothing scares a recent graduate or a young professional more than the concept of networking, of breaking into or starting a conversation with a complete stranger “with an agenda”. Professors don’t explain this in college, but there’s almost nothing more important to a budding (or practicing) design professional than networking. Looking back on twenty years, I’ve come to realize that having a good network was maybe the single most important thing I could ever have been, should ever have been, working on. As many of you have I’m sure, I’ve witnessed talented graduates languish unwanted, and watched experienced designers, project managers, and specification writers find themselves suddenly unemployed due to sudden changes in the market or the economy at large.
Not viscerally understanding the importance of, and the practiced skills involved with, building quality professional relationships is a serious flaw in design education and maybe just education in general. For a number of reasons, we have become more focused on the final product and the time and technology involved, than we have on the relationships necessary to first acquire and then execute it. With a broad and diverse network, a person can more effectively connect with potential employers and clientele, find better services and consultants, learn about new products and methods, meet kindred design spirits, and find complementary working associates. These connections individually and collectively are opportunities for “lucky” coincidences to happen, and when added to skill makes for a powerful combination that almost inevitably leads to success. Indeed, success is not an accident, it is a combination of intentional actions fortuitously combined with chance opportunity. Networking is simply intentionally building that web of opportunity, and the more strands you have the more likely you are to catch something.
How does a person “network”? Get to know people…lots of people…all sorts of people. Get to know them in meaningful ways by having real conversations about real topics, i.e. build relationships. As with any relationships, personal or professional, they must be built on sincerity and trust, involve risk, and they take time, patience, and skill to first establish and then maintain them.
Don’t sweat proper technique. Be yourself.
Be the genuine you, not some schmoozing character you play when professionally socializing. Learning who you really are (what you want and need, strengths and weaknesses, etc.) takes time to fully understand, and it’s a work in perpetual progress. Likewise, accept others for who they are; people just like you with needs and wants, goals and ideas, skills and talents, flaws and beliefs that may differ from yours (and viva la difference). Coming from a place that isn’t true to you is deceitful, and while there are those that are good at misrepresentation and even successfully benefit from such behavior, it is still a lie and almost guaranteed to get you into big trouble.
In order to speak of trust, let me speak of sales, which is often seen as synonymous with networking. As human beings we are “selling” all the time- it’s a natural part of interpersonal communication. However, “sales” taken literally, is persuasion with an expectation of getting somebody to buy something, be it an idea or a product or a service. It’s a slippery slope from persuasion to coercion, from choice to force, from dialogue to diatribe. Consider the classic “used car salesman”, whose task it is to quickly move product regardless of the point of view of the buyer which leads to an immediate breech of trust, compromising the new relationship before it even begins. By contrast, a good salesman patiently speaks as well as listens, teaches as well as learns, in an open and fluid conversation accepting of the idea that the available product (or service) may not even be appropriate. In so doing, trust is earned and a natural relationship (two people relating to one another) builds, in both the short and long term, setting the stage for future business well beyond the limits of the initial two-party relationship.
Give and Take.
A natural and necessary part of relationship is risk. In order to gain, you must give, and to give is to risk; rejection, failure, ridicule, even being taken advantage of. Volunteer and get involved, in the conversation and the action. And for maximum effect, make sure to go outside your comfort zone and traditional circles, although those are good too, especially at the early stages. Get out there and offer up what you have (time, skill, and passion), that which you are comfortable with laying out there for others to benefit from. And you will find others will do the same for you (resources, connections, wisdom). There is no hurry, just pay attention and listen at first and then speak when you’re ready. You can give more and risk more as you develop your understanding of self, the profession, and the world at large. Understand that the rewards will grow as you risk more, and give more, but no risk, no reward.
Patience and Time.
Note that there was a critical difference between the two sample salesmen above and it has to do with the investment of time and patience or the lack thereof. One has a “time is money” approach; the salesman’s time is critical and the buyer’s time is irrelevant. Their purpose is to promote the pretense of respect, building just enough trust in the relationship to complete a sale before moving on. The more successful salesman respects the time of all involved, allowing the necessary conversation to happen and thus the relationship to sincerely build, not pushing but pulling. The sale is a goal but it is only a potential byproduct of the relationship. Building quality relationships takes time, so be patient and don’t impose any expectation beyond that of establishing a good relationship. Depending on the situation, numerous encounters under a variety of circumstances may be necessary for the right moment to occur and the “magic” to happen, but never force it or lose it forever. To go in expecting more is to set the stage for disappointment and failure.
Networking isn’t easy, but nothing worth anything is. Are there those naturally talented at it? Sure, but for most it’s an acquired skill, and as with all skills- practice, practice, practice. Extroverts are naturally comfortable with others, which inevitably results in more experience (effort) but not necessarily more talent (gift). It’s a practiced art to be able to meaningfully converse with others, to guide conversation in productive directions in a manner that isn’t uncomfortable, unclear, or unnecessarily time consuming. You won’t be good at it right away and that’s okay, but with time you’ll learn your voice and you’ll learn how to listen, to think on your feet, to see the hint of opportunity, and to paint a beautiful and fruitful conversation.
So, to all those in the design profession or just entering it, to those practicing and those currently unemployed, I sincerely hope this helps. Frankly, I’m still sorting it all out myself. Yes, there are technological tools that make parts of the networking process easier (initial contact, following up, etc.), but they are just tools and do not replace the need for a personal investment. You can use LinkedIn, FaceBook, and Twitter, but the real networking, the real relationship building happens face to face with both feet in the water, your “self” at risk. There’s no way around it. There are no shortcuts. And there is no substitute. So, get started now and prepare to reap the rewards for a lifetime.
Is this all a shameless plug for DesignSpeak? I’ll admit it gladly. Networking is a big part of why it was conceived. But while networking is an important job unto itself, it should also be and is a lot of fun. So, in hopes that you’ll start your network or just expand it, see you soon.