The difference between networking and relationship-building is the difference between being self-serving and other-serving.
When you’re overly driven to simply ‘network’ and build up a portfolio of people you know, the underlying urge is one of selfishness – I want to improve my prospects socially or in business. When that underlying urge pushes through the surface it can be off-putting to others and actually backfire – a friend of mine recently commented how annoyed he was when he recently agreed to lunch with another person in the same line of work as him in the area, and the experience turned out to be nothing more than a token gesture of goodwill and the prospect of connection offered merely for the sake of it. There was no substance, no crossing boundaries. No interest in him personally.
At times I’ve been tempted to try to adopt a mindset of ‘networking’ as a means to the end of, hopefully, getting more work (I’m self-employed). Yet as I reflect on it I think it’s helpful to make a distinction between ‘networking’ and ‘relationship-building’.
We all know the truth of the adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And I’m not contesting that. But perhaps (for the purpose of this clarification at least) we can add a sub-clause: “and it’s how you know them.”
I’ve picked up business cards in my time; taken people’s phone numbers and even compiled a group in my phone’s address book just for other contacts in my line of work. Yet these are rarely the folks that will be in touch with me again, or even that I will feel the need to be in touch with. Those who have offered me work have almost always been surprising – people I wouldn’t have expected it from. In short, my friends.
For example. I have a friend through whom I must have earned well over £1,500 over the last couple of years, and that figure is still rising. I don’t say that boastfully (after one month’s rent, £1,500 doesn’t look like so much any more). But I never approached my relationship with him expecting to get something out of it. I think this is the killer with the mindset of ‘networking’: when we walk into a room of people with high prospects, we start sucking like a vacuum cleaner looking for what we can get out of it and leave empty space behind us. With my friend, on the other hand, relationship came first. Relationship for the sake of it. Only after a while did he offer me a gig. Then another one. Then a few more, plus a connection to a different bit of work. Then a few more gigs.
I said at the opening that the difference between networking and relationship-building is that between being self-serving and other-serving. I think I’d like to adjust that. Because the opposite of selfishness isn’t just selflessness; in fact it is by understanding what our own needs and wants are that we can understand those of others, as per the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have done to you. Love your neighbour as yourself. So perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the difference is between being self-serving and relationship-serving. Not “I’m important” versus “you’re important”, but “I’m important” versus “we are important”. What we have between us is worth sustaining. I’m not in this just for me.
I suppose I’m not campaigning for the language of networking to be ditched. Sometimes when time is short it’s helpful to have a bit more of a structured framework to work with. But in the long run I want a mindset of, primarily, relationship-serving and -building, seeking the good of others and of the community. This is usually what turns out to be most rewarding.