Three Unwritten Rules for How to Make Networking Actually Work for You

We all know about generational wealth, but we need to talk about generational information too
(Illustration: iStockphoto)

A common response to anyone who is job-seeking and struggling in this rollercoaster economy is; “Get out there and network!”

It’s technically good advice, of course, but that’s usually where the actual instruction stops. It’s the most important part of building a career, but no one actually explains how to do it.

There is a right and a wrong way to network—but most of these rules are unwritten. And unwritten rules reinforce structural inequities. There’s a lot of talk about “nepo babies” and “generational wealth,” but hardly anyone discusses generational information—access to the (sometimes gross and in need of takedown) unwritten rules of the corporate world.

That’s why networking, for those of us who have attempted it in the traditional sense, feels sticky, transactional and tedious. We are stumbling around in the dark without a guide to tell us how to network in a way that feels authentic, energizing and human.

I’ve spent 15 years building one of the most helpful and kind networks I could ever imagine, and it’s been the jet fuel that has made my career possible. But I messed up a lot, too. So here is what I wish I knew when I was 22.

Rule 1: Don’t “network”

Business-card-collecting networking is transactional, impersonal and… it doesn’t work. We’ve all been at an event where you explain what you do to someone and then watch in real-time as they assess your value to them, decide you aren’t important enough to talk to and move on. That interaction feels bad because it is bad.

So don’t network—at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, focus on making real friends. Your network isn’t about you, it’s about building a community of mutual professional support. It’s a collection of relationships that are cultivated over a lifetime. Those relationships aren’t built with one handshake at a stuffy conference. They take work and care.

If you’re intimidated, start with your peers. Look for people who are at a similar career stage as you are, and reach out. Join local communities, show up in person or on virtual calls and be yourself. Which leads me to our next rule…

Rule 2: Don’t be interesting, be interested

Most people want to be interesting and impressive. What can I say to make them think I’m smart/cool/credible? What name can I drop to make them think I’m important?

On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating on social media.

There is a trend on TikTok of women going on dates and counting the number of questions they get asked. Spoiler: The results are disappointing. In any context, listening to someone try to impress you is tedious, and it doesn’t build the foundation for a real relationship.

Here is a simple rule about making new friends and connections (romantic and professional): Be interested, not interesting. Don’t focus on trying to impress them, focus on trying to know them. Get genuinely curious, ask thoughtful questions, actively listen to their answers and follow up the next day to thank them.

Rule 3: Make it easy to help you (once you’ve built the relationship)

Generally, people want to help. They want to make the intro, go for the coffee, review your resume—but they’re really, really busy. Most leaders have jam-packed schedules, so when you send a vague ask, you’re shifting a lot of work onto that busy person. A vague ask looks like this:

I’m looking for a new role, do you happen to know any e-commerce founders hiring that you could introduce me to?

Now, your connection needs to comb their network, think about your skills and their network and make thoughtful introductions without a lot of specificity or context. That’s too much work for your connection. Make their lives easy. Be specific and give them actionable things to deliver on.

Related: How Do I Find a Mentor?

Before you write the ask, think about what you would need if you were on the receiving end. Now, write a specific, actionable ask that does some of that work for them.

What exactly do you need? The ask needs to be specific and easily actionable.

Will they need to think about who to introduce you to? Comb their LinkedIn and offer examples of folks in their network you’d love to connect to.

Will they need to introduce you? Write them a one-sentence introduction.

Will they need to position your experience or explain your company? Write them the blurb they can use.

One last thing

In a world where some days we interact with robots more than humans, authentic connections become scarce and also much more necessary. Show up, put yourself out there, treat people with overwhelming kindness, say thank you, help anytime you can and follow up. If you do those simple things, some incredible opportunities will follow.

Sarah Stockdale
Sarah Stockdale
Sarah Stockdale is the Founder of Growclass, an award-winning Growth Marketing Certification and community of Founders and Marketers. Sarah is also the Author of the popular millennial newsletter We Need To Talk About This.