What meaningful relationships have you built through recent networking that have advanced your business or you as a professional? If you’re not sure, then it may be time to rebuild your approach.
This article appears in the March/April 2020 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.
You come back from a trade show with a neat stack of business cards, an in-box brimming with LinkedIn invitations, and a sore neck from the red-eye flight home. Was it worth it? Probably not, because you may be using an outdated model of networking that emphasizes volume over value.
Networking has become a multibillion-dollar industry, with PwC estimating that the business-to-business trade show market alone will grow from $14.3 billion in 2017 to $16.8 billion by 2021. Networking activity has also become temptingly easy to access, with LinkedIn’s 260 million active members reachable in the daily workflow.
Yet even business leaders who rigorously measure the ROI of every investment of corporate time may not subject their own networking activity to that same scrutiny. What meaningful relationships have you built through recent networking that have advanced your business or you as a professional? If you’re not sure, then it may be time to rebuild your approach to networking.
HealthLeaders editor and leadership programs director Jim Molpus recently chatted with Derek Coburn, author of Networking Is Not Working: Stop Collecting Business Cards and Start Making Meaningful Connections. Coburn is also co-founder of Washington, D.C.–based Cadre, a group of 85 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
HealthLeaders: There seems to be a lot of networking activity today. But do you get the sense that it has a specific purpose, or are a lot of professionals just out there networking because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do?
Derek Coburn: Most people who approach networking are just doing it to check a box. They don't understand why they're doing it. My book is called Networking Is Not Working. Why? Two reasons. One, ask a room full of executives how they define networking, and you may get a different answer from everyone. Some would use the word networking as a verb, some would use it as an adjective, and some would use it as a noun. And your ability to successfully network is directly correlated with engaging others who have a definition of networking that’s like yours.
HealthLeaders: What’s your take on how professionals should approach typical networking events?
Coburn: Well, the second reason that networking is not working is the networking event scene in general. Many networking events are a lot like nightclubs in that most of the people there are looking for a professional “one-night stand.” They’re focused on themselves; they’re just seeing how many business cards they can flick around. When it comes to choosing whom you're going to spend networking time with, find the events with the people you want to meet and want to help. That way, everyone's there for the same reason. If you go to an event and the only qualifier is that you’re going to have free drinks and hors d'oeuvres, you're going to find people who aren’t going to be valuable to you.
(Photo courtesy of Derek Coburn, author, and co-founder of Cadre, Washington, D.C.)
HealthLeaders: So, for people who come back from conferences with a bunch of business cards but few memorable connections, how do you break the pattern?
Coburn: If you get good at choosing the right event, you'll likely end up having deeper, more meaningful conversations. The subtitle of my book is “Stop Collecting Business Cards and Start Making Meaningful Connections.” A few years after the book came out, I ran out of cards and decided that making more would not be true to my brand. And I know that sounds harsh, but I am at a phase of my professional life where my focus is on deepening the existing relationships that I do have. If I meet someone interesting, I will ask for their card, or I will find them on social media and connect.
HealthLeaders: Networking doesn’t seem to have evolved much when you really get down to it, has it?
Coburn: There are three ways people move through networking. The first one is networking 1.0. This is the version of networking where most people spend their time. They're just focused on themselves. They want clients, but nobody who goes to a networking event wants a pitch—yet those same attendees who say they don’t want a pitch will still lead with talking about their own business. The people who take this selfish approach to networking are the ones who continue to show up at these events tossing their business cards around.
HealthLeaders: That sounds familiar.
Coburn: Networking 2.0 stems from a movement 10 or 15 years ago where well-intentioned people wrote books and focused on how you can add value for someone else. Their idea was to go to every event leading with what can you do for the other person. But, when you're looking to develop a relationship with somebody new, one thing you should never lead with is, “How can I help you?” When people reach out to me and ask that, they are putting the burden on me. I don't really know much about them. Probably we met and had a five- or 10-minute phone conversation. I don't know how they can help me.
The best form of networking, what I call networking 3.0, is where you're not focused on yourself and you're not focused on this person whom you're meeting for the first time. Instead, you're focused on your existing relationships, your existing clients, your existing colleagues, and you’re looking to find opportunities and solutions for the people in your network via your new contacts.
HealthLeaders: How would that interaction work?
Coburn: For example, I'm a financial advisor, and whenever I say that, everybody wants to run away. Understandably so. But if I keep talking and show interest in a person over time, they may mention that they don’t need financial planning right now because they’re focused on looking for a new home. Most people in that situation would walk away and move on to a person who's more interested in hearing about their financial planning practice right now. Most people don't have a network of great real estate agents that they could refer in that situation. But because I do, I am now able to have a very low-risk, potentially high-reward introduction because I can pass along the names of two terrific real estate agents in town. I'm letting this person know that I'm not just focused on my own business and how I'm going to make money. With this approach, I am also reinforcing to my existing network that I am thinking about them.
HealthLeaders: Social media can really scale up networking activity, but are those relationships a bit thin and perhaps overvalued?
Coburn: Focus on quality over quantity. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’s effort. Get to know that contact. Spend a little bit of time and energy in their social media profiles to see what they're interested in, understanding what their business is about and how you might be able to add value for them. You can't take this approach with a hundred or a thousand people, for sure. Take steps with 10 to 20 people at a time.
HealthLeaders: What about contacts you meet at an event?
Coburn: If you meet somebody at a networking event who is a good connection for you, and you feel like you both can add value for each other over time, then keep talking to them. Don't end the conversation because you are also trying to come back from the event with 30 business cards. That’s not necessarily a win.
HealthLeaders: So, what is the right size for any one person’s professional network?
Coburn: Are you familiar with Dunbar's Number?
HealthLeaders: I haven’t heard that in a while.
Coburn: Dunbar's Number is a suggested cognitive limit for the number of people whom you can maintain an effective social relationship with at any period of time. Dunbar’s number is 150. Social media can be overwhelming and can make networking relationships shallow. It can be hard to develop and maintain relationships, but technology allows relationship-building to scale somewhat. I think that maybe the number is more like 250 people whom you can actively be thinking about and who are actively thinking about you.
“The best form of networking is ... you're focused on your existing relationships, your existing clients, your existing colleagues, and you’re looking to find opportunities and solutions for the people in your network via your new contacts.”
—Derek Coburn, author, and co-founder of Cadre, Washington, D.C.
Jim Molpus is an editor for HealthLeaders.
Stop worrying about being connected. Work to be a connector.
If you are not making valuable contacts at your events, you are not going to the right events. Be choosy.
He who collects the most business cards does not win.