A few weeks ago, someone mentioned that they were going to an art exhibit for networking purposes. I appreciated the intent, yet couldn’t help feeling that something seemed upside down.
Networking is a concept we have a hard time grappling with. We sense it must be done, our visibility is important. Yet it is awkward. (One study has actually found that people rate soap and toothpaste 19 percent more positively after imagining themselves having to make professional contacts at a cocktail party.)
So what exactly is networking, what do we do, how do we behave? Is it even a something we can actually do as a distinct activity that sets itself apart from, say, kayaking, or drinking coffee? What is its substance?
Why do we even talk about networking? As if it matters? Because it does matter. Something at the core of real networking connects us to our shared humanity. Networking is perhaps nothing more but the quiet, contemplative art of crafting with others a web that holds the luminescence of empty space and nurtures the health of relationship.
A Harvard Business Review article defines networking as the “creating of a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information.” The word net refers etymologically to the hand-crafted nets that we use for fishing. In Hawaii, the art of creating nets is considered a sacred skill handed down from generation to generation. Sacred, because the craft honors the land, which provides strong, supple fibers, as well as the ocean, which provides nourishment. It honors the other. The net ensures survival. The fishing method known as hukilau especially calls the community together. The hukilau net spans across an entire bay. In tune with the ocean’s surging and receding tides, everyone works as one to spread the net into the ocean, to pull it back in. The whole community shares in the abundance of the catch. Here is celebration, laughter, generosity, gratitude. Story telling evolves around these gatherings, a further sharing of gifts.
You see, a net really is mostly open space. It’s that light spaciousness that enables abundance and strengthens relationships. Our stories and strengths travel along the nodes, but you can’t hold them tight. Our nets answer to our longing for laughter, heart connection, empathy and energy shared. “Without the ability to capture the hearts, minds, and energy of others, the truly important things in work and in life can’t be achieved,” says George Hallenbeck. Networking can also be defined as flow, space, generosity.
Networking in spaciousness is never about me and always about we, a we made possible by this planet. We belong. I don’t need anything in the circle of this net. We help each other.
Okay, but what about the reality of business? Data sharing, merger opportunities, career promotions, sales and expansion potentials, wooing stakeholders? Forget fish and celebration. What about targeted influencing? Heck, we use the word contacts interchangeably with the word people. Here is an interesting statistic: Eighty-five percent of jobs are filled through networking, apparently. What gives? The statistic doesn’t tell us what occurred. My sense is that those who got those jobs didn’t really "network" but just created a space for trust and generosity. The substance of networking - its currency, if you will - is always opening space, for trust and generosity. It’s about relationship. Those who got the jobs must honor the currency and pay it forward. With respect. And kindness. For yourself and other. This is the truth of relationship in the spacious net.
The truth of relationship is a natural process that shies away from pre-calculation. The essence of the spacious net is our interest and curiosity about life’s abundance. That influence we want through our networking efforts? Influence refers to the word flow. It will flow naturally from the space we open up.
So networking in and of itself does not exist as a distinct activity. It can’t be an objective. We go to an art show and meet people, simply because we are interested in art and the wonderful, fascinating, inspiring people from all walks of life who also appreciate art. We can ask questions not because we want something but because we are in a state of wonder and presence. “What brought you here?” “Tell me more?” What do you think of this painting?” You are not thinking, “They may just be my next customer or influencer.” We care, create a space of ease. Sometimes, eventually, information, support, and resources flow. Sometimes this flow expands beyond our initial conversation and cascades into far-reaching results.
Great leaders know that their time is best spent in creating spaces for flow. They are present, listen, receive, help when they can, communicate clearly when appropriate. That is always enough. Sometimes nothing happens, other than humanity shared. This is what moves us forward. It all happens in genuine relationship. “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you,” Dale Carnegie once said.
And there is something else. Great leaders don’t even need to go out much in search of elusive influence or influencers. Because they create remarkable products. First. They do stellar work. They collaborate while they work. When they reach out, they do so only because they care. They give and give some more. They never make or sell their case. There is no case, just great work. It shows. That is spacious too. Courage, humility and trust draw others in. Great leaders offer, you could say, a refuge, a net of safety.
So how about, the next time you go out, you only seek to find some common ground, with one other person, just one meaningful conversation that nurtures you both? How about seeking only opportunities that have meaning for you, so you can just be you?
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