Here’s a question I get asked a lot: “How can I be a better networker?” My answer often comes as a surprise: “Stop networking!” I say that because the stereotypical view of “networking” is ineffective, and it can even be harmful. Instead, people should focus on connecting and building real relationships. Here’s why relationships are important, why stereotypical networking goes off track, and how you can build the kind of relationships that will increase your knowledge, influence, and value as a professional.

 Relationships are our foundation

At our core, humans are relationship-driven. It starts in infancy with parental bonds and continues through the rest of our lives. Some scientists believe the reason we’re the dominate species on the planet is because of our ability to build complex relationships—our ability to share ideas and collaborate at large scale. And the word “relationship” has very specific connotations. Positive relationships are built over time, they’re founded on reciprocity, they have value, and we rely on them in tough times. These are precisely the qualities needed for effective professional relationships, too.

Companies are also based on relationships—they’re a collection of individuals working toward a common goal, individuals who share ideas and collaborate. The success of any enterprise ultimately depends on the health of the internal relationships. Moreover, as individuals, we rely on our professional relationships for our competency. Professional relationships provide the information, insight, and influence we need to be successful. It might be information on a great job that is about to open up, insight on an important new trend in your industry, or access to critical decision makers.  With the right relationships, your professional knowledge and value increase. Isolation will cause your competency to degrade.

The problem with stereotypical “networking”

I know someone who recently attended an event that epitomized why stereotypical networking goes off track—a “speed-networking” event. It was in a room with over 100 people (almost all of them strangers), and a facilitator led several quick exercises to have attendees meet as many people as possible (the goal was to collect business cards). The result: he took home a lot of business cards, but had no real connections. When he later followed-up with people he met, the conversations felt forced.

This extreme example illustrates the two main problems with stereotypical networking: 1) People treat it as an isolated event, rather than a long-term investment; 2) People approach it with the goal of “getting something,” rather than building reciprocal relationships. As a result, interactions are uncomfortable—it’s the reason so many people dread networking.

Three types of professional relationships

There’s also an added complexity because there are distinctly different types of relationships every professional needs. Harvard professor Linda A. Hill and her colleague Kent Lineback give a great framework for three types of professional relationships in their book Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. In summary, they are:

  1. Tactical relationships are the most basic—they’re the day-to-day relationships we build to perform our jobs. We have them with our co-workers, bosses, subordinates, vendors, and anyone we interface with operationally.
  2. Social relationships are our friends at work—they’re the people in our work lives whom we connect with because we enjoy their company. We may meet for lunch or a beer after work. These relationships are typically easy to form, but they’re not sufficient.
  3. Strategic relationships are often the most important and, yet, the most overlooked. Strategic relationships provide visibility into new areas, increase our knowledge, broaden our perspectives, and grow our influence. They might be with an important leader in another part of your company, an important influencer in your industry, or even thought-leaders in different industries. Mentors are another example of strategic relationships.

Relationships and leadership

Relationships are especially important for leaders, because leaders have the added responsibility of creating environments where their teams can be successful. That means being broadly knowledgeable about the organization, and having the influence to negotiate difficult political situations—all things that require healthy strategic relationships. In many ways, your subordinates depend on the health of your strategic relationships. And, the more senior you are, the more important those strategic relationships become.

Here’s something else that trips people up about strategic relationships: They’re not necessarily built on “friendship” with people we “like.” In business—and especially if you’re a leader—you don’t have the luxury of only forming relationships with the people you like. In order to build your professional competency, you must also create healthy, reciprocal, long-term relationships with people that you might not necessarily be drawn to as friends.

Five steps to connect and build effective professional relationships

Here are five specific steps to help you connect and build the productive relationships that will increase your knowledge, influence, and ultimately your value as a professional:

  1. Make a long-term commitment. Like all relationships, your professional connections require commitment and an investment of time. Take a long-term view in building these relationships and avoid the “quick-fix,” speed-networking approach.
  2. Take the time to learn about people. A great way to start building connections is to leverage your natural curiosity. When you meet new contacts, take the time to learn about them, what they’re working on, what they struggle with, and what they care about. People instinctively know when you’re genuinely interested, and just taking the time to learn about them is a good way to demonstrate interest.
  3. Build relationships on reciprocity. All good relationships are based on reciprocity. Always approach relationship building from the standpoint of what support you can provide to the other person. The simple question “How can I help?” goes a long way, even if the other person doesn’t have an immediate need.
  4. Stretch out of your comfort zone. Consider your existing professional relationships, and think about areas you may be missing. For example, do you only know people who work in your industry? Or, maybe you only connect with people in your company. Limits like those can lead to blind spots. There’s a tremendous benefit in stretching out of our comfort zones, and getting to know people who’ll have a different perspective.
  5. Invest time on a regular basis. People who have the most productive relationships commit to investing time. This might include scheduling time each week to connect with a different person you haven’t spoken to in a while, or circling back to everyone you met during a job search and letting them know where you ended up. Consider joining special project teams, or professional organizations to broaden your connections. It’s key to make sure relationship building always remains one of your top priorities.