Networking — as uncomfortable as it makes some — is necessary, especially in the realm of knowledge work. The more connections and experience a person can gather, the better their chances are of moving up within a company or industry.
So why are some knowledge workers so averse to it? Because after a mentally taxing day of carrying out high-level tasks, the last thing anyone may want to do is chat someone up at a trade show or do anything traditionally associated with networking if it's not related to completing a work-related task.
That's why it's time to adjust the way we view networking, which is something leaders and executives can have a hand in. By encouraging employees to make out-of-office connections via side jobs and other ventures, leaders can give their knowledge workers resources to further develop their professional skills and apply those improvements to their jobs.
The Root of the Matter
Knowledge workers see themselves as doers. Everyone starts at that level, hoping to move up to a point where they can delegate tasks.
In my experience, networking is when a bunch of those delegators and knowledge workers get together at a trade show, a seminar, or a meeting and shoot the breeze. Nothing gets accomplished, but they're really good at making it look like things are getting done.
It's a boondoggle, one that experienced knowledge workers can identify. But that doesn't mean it can't be helpful. Networkers are typically high in emotional intelligence, meaning they can work a room, connect, and motivate people.
These are traits great knowledge workers either have or should develop, meaning any amount of networking — traditional or otherwise — helps exercise that emotional intelligence muscle. Those in leadership positions need to change their employees' ideas of what networking can be and encourage them to do it as often as possible.
A New Narrative on Networking
Here’s how to change the networking mindset and help employees improve their knowledge work:
1. Put an emphasis on network-building. Networking and building a network are not the same. When doing the former, workers are not actually meeting new people — they’re zoning in on prospects and investors who could benefit them in the short term.
Building networks isn’t about seeking personal gain, but rather about understanding the connections between people and the value that a robust network of knowledge workers creates. Help employees understand that having a deep base to network from can put them in touch with ideas, methods, and resources that'll help them be more effective knowledge workers.
2. Stay on even during your time off. The things that most people consider distractions are actually key drivers of success in the knowledge economy. While long hours at the office might be typical in the startup world, I can point to all my successes and trace each one back to an experience with a friend or colleague in a context most people would consider non-essential leisure.
In 2013, I received an invitation to MastermindTalks as a backup speaker. The audience was full of successful entrepreneurs and opportunities to make meaningful connections without an agenda.
On the second night, I met A.J. Jacobs in an elevator, and during the conversation, we made plans to meet for drinks later that evening. When I went to meet the group, which included Marc Ecko, Tim Ferriss, and several other influencers, I felt a bit starstruck. I told Tim about how his book changed my life, and Mark and I discussed a potential move into the apparel business.
He gave me his number, and while my business isn’t ready to make that call yet, the opportunity is there — all thanks to downtime spent building a network of fellow knowledge workers.
3. Encourage side hustles. Running a successful company means running successful people, and if carving out time to pursue 'non-essential leisure' is good for entrepreneurs, it’s also good for the people working underneath them.
The startup world moves quickly and offers few guarantees. Why, then, do so many young companies operate under a pretense of loyalty when handing out small checks, requiring too much work, and (worst of all) enforcing an excessive nine-hour workday? It’s not just insulting, it’s inefficient — and the companies that buck this trend are the ones that rise above the rest.
Don’t try to squeeze every ounce of productivity from your employees before they bounce to the next opportunity. Instead, offer them what you’re pursuing: the freedom to explore new knowledge. If you seek out talented people and limit their entrepreneurial drive to your own vision, you will not only lose those people quickly, but you will also fail to get the most from them while they’re with you.
Give your employees the time and freedom to pursue side gigs and new ideas. Some of them will fail, and some of them will leave you for new horizons, but every person you treat well is an opportunity to discover new ideas for your company — and an opportunity to grow your personal knowledge network.