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How to prevent networking events from being a waste of time

[Networking events can be a drag, but if you use them to your advantage, they can actually be a good opportunity.]

In a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, Derek Coburn, author of “Networking Is Not Working,” called networking events both “inefficient and ineffective.”

“Regardless of how you define networking, your success will be directly tied to your ability to interact with people looking to achieve many of the same things you are,” he wrote. “The most basic problem with traditional networking events is that they are mixing bowls for professionals who are there for different reasons.”

It’s an interesting stance to take, especially in a publication tethered to an Ivy League school known for its frequent and global, er, network of networks. But Coburn raises some good points about the lack of authentic connecting going on at these sorts of events.

“Everyone there is focused on his or her own personal agenda, whether it’s signing a new client, creating awareness for their business, or connecting with someone in the hopes of developing a mutually beneficial relationship,” he writes. “Everyone is playing a different game, which is why there are usually no clear winners.”

So how then does one possibly win at networking?

“We need to change, we need to do an un-networking type of networking – call it relationship connecting or relationship building,” says Eileen Chadnick, an executive coach and founder of Big Cheese Coaching. “Networking has gotten a very bad name because it’s misunderstood.”

She says that while she disagrees with Coburn that networking events are, for the most part, a lost cause, she does agree that “people take a superficial approach.” She likens having a good networking strategy to building a proper financial plan.

“I think networking needs to have different parts – to be diverse and strategic and targeted – (something that) speaks to your needs and objectives,” she says. “I also think that network plans and activities need to evolve… just like a financial plan changes over time based on your life circumstances and your life stage, networking will also shift depending on where you are in the continuum of your career.”

Chadnick shared three ways to un-network:

Use LinkedIn the right way

“Too often, people do far too little building and strengthening their existing network… that is key,” she says. “They may be on LinkedIn but they’re not really using it; it becomes a passive list of people.”

Instead, she says, if you’re going to click “yes” on making a connection with someone, put the effort to actually grow that into a relationship. In other words, open a dialogue with them, talk about mutual connections, look for proper synergies there because the tool is already highlighting those common ties.

“Comment on their interesting career, be genuine,” she says. “Just say hello, do an email exchange and it can be just that for now or if there was any merit or reason to set up a meeting, do so.”

If rallying for an in-person coffee isn’t an option, the career coach suggests trying a “virtual coffee” video call.

Try “by the way” networking

Effectively networking in person has its own set of etiquette and quirks.

“A lot of people feel uncomfortable with networking because they think it’s going to push them to be inauthentic and smarmy and ask for things,” she says. “No wonder they feel uncomfortable because that is the wrong way to network.”

Instead, she recommends keeping flexibility in your agenda. Most conversations tend to tilt towards commonalities so if it seems like there’s some sort of connection you can help the person make, be the first to offer.

“In an authentic catch-up conversation, say ‘by the way, I’m trying to do this or that or I’m interested in talking to people doing such and such’ or maybe ‘You know what, I know somebody you should definitely talk to,’ ” says Chadnick. It can strengthen the bond and pave the way for future connections down the road.

Go to smaller events

And finally, if you’re finding yourself helplessly disoriented and short on results at big networking events, why not try going to smaller, more focused meet-up groups.

“It’s a return on investment kind of question, you have to ask yourself: how much time do I want to spend and what do I hope to get back?” she says. Maybe you don’t need to go every month; maybe networking events are just small parts of you diverse networking strategy. “A smaller intimate gathering can be more meaningful.”

Think about your reason for going, she says, and above all don’t be disappointed by the lack of immediacy surrounding building these connections.

“Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t do as much as you really wish you could and would like to because none of us can,” says Chadnick. “But keep it active, do a little, bit by bit, make it part of your weekly and monthly goal and just constantly be doing something.”