Professional networking: The modern dichotomy

Professional Networking

Here’s one of the first issues with professional networking. In the modern era, with so many “thought leaders” and their associated 127K Twitter followers out there, we’re getting tons of generic advice on what networking should really be and look like. Here’s an example. Hundreds of articles will tell you that “first impressions are everything,” which is one of the oldest pieces of advice ever. In reality, some of the most connected people in the world barely consider first impression. We also tend to think that professional networking is solely the domain of extroverts (seems logical), but tons of research has shown that introverts are actually better networkers.

Finally, there are a lot of elements of professional networking that people don’t seem to get. There are concepts like “mind share” (are you top of mind for another person?) that need to be factored in. Ever heard of “Dunbar’s Number?” All this stuff is meaningful in the context of professional networking, but we often whiff on it.

Here’s how most people look at it (that I know):

  • Go to an event
  • Make small talk
  • Press some flesh
  • Grip and grin
  • Toss around business cards
  • Say generic stuff about how slammed/busy you are
  • Offer to fit in the person you’re networking with despite how hard and busy the whole world is

That’s almost entirely wrong, but this post really isn’t about the problems there. Rather, it’s about how professional networking represents one of the classic misunderstandings of the modern, technologically-connected world.

Professional networking: What do you need from networks?

Some Type-A target-chaser would instantly screech: “The ability to get more money in a new job!” Yep. That’s part of it. But per this research, you need two things:

  • Instrumental support
  • Psycho-social support

You can probably figure out what each of these is, but here goes. Instrumental support is ideas, advice, and assistance. Psycho-social is allaying fears and concerns around stuff like, well, a terrible boss. Psycho-social professional networking, then, is more personal and direct. It doesn’t necessarily require you to be in the same place as a networked colleague, but the quality of the relationship would need to be deeper.

Which do you think is tougher in the modern age? I bet you know.

Professional networking: The decline of psycho-social support

I think the “auto-DM” (an automatic message on social media) is one of the worst things in the modern connected world. But still, thousands of people use it. Let me give you a quick example around this.

Have you ever gotten an auto-DM on Twitter … where someone tells you to connect with them on LinkedIn? A lot of people just blindly do this, because, well … bigger networks? That must be good! But have you ever stopped and wondered, “What would be the value-add of me and this person being connected on LinkedIn?” Most people don’t. They just click and add. Now they have 1,171 LinkedIn connections instead of 1,170. That’s how you do professional networking, baby!

Riddle me this, though. Is this person going to offer you any type of psycho-social support? No. Not an iota. Three weeks after you add this person on LinkedIn, try this game. Send them a message about your boss being a micro-manager. Here’s what will probably happen:

That’s not psycho-social support. Instead, that’s being sold to under the guise of instrumental support. See the problem?

Professional networking and the problems of technology

We deify the tech billionaires and their kegerator cultures, and we love to talk about how technology has made us all so connected. In many ways, it’s true. I can do work with someone in Singapore very easily. 25 years ago, that would have been much harder. That’s a plus.

The negatives: technology, especially in the form of social media, is essentially just a bunch of shit flying around. Facts, figures, “infographics,” opinions, professional networking requests, eBooks, white papers, Trump is awful, Trump is great, etc. At a certain point, you lose the human touch. This is the real reason that digital marketing often fails. See, in a world with so much noise, people gravitate back to referral. They want to know what people they trust are doing and working with. No one wants another pop-up ad for an email newsletter. Hold on, let me post my email newsletter ad here…


OK, we’re good now! But see how this works for professional networking too? There are about 17,892 people online promising to make you a “LinkedIn Ninja.” It’s largely bullshit. Most people in HR right now still cherish the paper resume, even though a LinkedIn profile is way more dynamic. “Social recruiting” is likely a buzzword more than a reality.

In short: more technology means more noise. More noise means people turn away from digital and back to referral. It often works this way with getting a job too.

Professional networking and the Temple of Busy

Here’s a quote from that article above:

But modern networking doesn’t always compare favorably: Your big, distant, loose network that can help you solve myriad business challenges probably provides little or no value in the realm of psycho-social support. It’s unlikely that you would reach out to a recent LinkedIn connection to get help with surviving your micromanaging boss, to allay your concerns about returning to work after the birth of your first child, or to disclose your private worry that you chose the wrong career. Those conversations require a deeper connection. They also require a certain amount of time, something you might believe you can’t afford to invest in networking anymore.

Read the last two sentences: “deeper connection” pops out to me, and “require a certain amount of time” as well. Problem is: many people (especially senior decision-makers who would be good in a professional networking context) love being busy. They tell you how busy they are at every turn.

So, in a way, this is what happened:

  • Technology rose up
  • It’s good because it makes it easier to connect with revenue partners all over the world
  • But …
  • … it’s more stuff to manage/take care of, and now everyone feels busier
  • That, in turn, has buried real connection and true professional networking

How could we improve professional networking?

Well, “we” can’t. Professional networking happens at a micro, individual-to-individual level — not at a macro “thought leadership” level. (Huge mistake many people miss.) People feel comfortable at a certain tier/level of professional networking, and all the advice in the world about what to do doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work for you. All this said, here’s a few ideas:

The context of the hand-Off: A lot of times, you get a “hot lead” to connect you with someone else, and then the “hot lead” totally whiffs on explaining what you do to that person. Now that person — the person you needed to connect with — could give two shits. Professional networking is all about the hand-off. Who is this person? Why do I care? What can they do for me? If the middleman doesn’t get that right, we’re doomed from the start.

Understand how Dunbar’s Number works: It matters a ton in professional networking.

Be yourself: If you’re not yourself and you get a job or a new lead off it, chances are that thing crashes/burns anyway. People are who they are. We can all change, but only within a few gradient degrees (minus a couple of major life events). If you know you’re not a $10,000 suit guy, don’t try to do professional networking with those types of guys. Not rocket science.

Value-add: What the hell else is professional networking really about then defining your value-add and whether you respect the other person’s value-add? That’s the whole game. And as I said above, that doesn’t happen so well on LinkedIn. It happens through psycho-social support. Real connection. Humans doing human things.

What else you got on professional networking?

Ted Bauer