Recently, someone asked me how I became so good at networking. My reaction was one of surprise. Me? Expert networker? (How did that happen…and when?)
And the answer I gave them surprised them: I decided to become a gardener.
Through the years I’ve learned a lot from gardeners. Gardeners, you see, have few secrets. They share. No hidden agenda---they want flowers and trees to prosper and appear everywhere. They’ll share tips, wisdom, and even secrets passed down from great-grandma on how to make a wisteria bloom or a hydrangea change color.
My wife once complimented a neighbor on her garden and the next day the woman brought over some bulbs and cuttings and taught my wife how to plant them properly. My wife learned how to garden from that woman and other neighborhood gardeners.
Had my wife demanded some plants from that woman who helped her get started, how do you think that woman would have responded? Probably not very kindly. She would have wondered, ”Who are you to demand something precious from me? I don’t know you .” No way she would have delivered cuttings to our home the next day.
I equate networking with gardening. In both fields, a little kindness and interest in the other person can go a long way.
Some networkers are expert gardeners. Their gardens are lush with contacts and should you look closely at them, you’ll see a lot of leads. Meanwhile, the beginner networkers all too often jump to “Any openings here? Can you get me a job?” And when the contact has nothing to give, these inexperienced gardeners lament “I’ve tried networking; it doesn’t work.”
Networking is relationship-building, not job-asking. A garden doesn’t magically appear overnight; it takes time to grow. And while it grows, you need to nurture it. It’s the same with your network.
After you plant a seed or cutting, you don’t ask anything of it. You give up your time and effort to ensure the plant survives. The networking equivalent, for me, is the informational interview.
The number one rule for succeeding at an informational interview is to not demand anything from the other person. Ask questions: How did you get into this field? What qualifications were needed to break into it? What do you like best about your job? How could I learn more about your field?
After the informational interview, thank the person and stay in touch. Don’t forget them! You don’t plant a seed and neglect it. You water a seed; you occasionally email or phone a contact. On the other hand, you never overwater a young plant. You don’t contact people to the point of annoyance.
For the gardener, the pay-off comes weeks or months later, when the plants bloom and the neighbors admire the scenery. Or, perhaps you enjoy spices or vegetables for dinner.
For the networker, the payoff comes when you need a contact at a company and one of your existing contacts knows someone and will arrange an introduction. Or maybe the contact has an actual job position and contacts you directly.
Neither gardeners nor networkers become experts overnight. In spite of gardener efforts, plants still die. And so do some relationships. You’ll make mistakes.
But, you’ll learn from others; through networking events; from books and articles. And, as you do more and more networking, you’ll get better at it. My wife became a great gardener. And some people tell me I’m pretty good at networking.