With 70 to 80 percent of jobs being filled either internally or through referrals, according to NPR, professional networking — along with death and taxes — has become one of life’s most dreaded inevitabilities. For many of us, just the idea of spending an evening glad-handing a crowded room of strangers is enough to awaken long-since-suppressed painful memories of middle school dances. According to William Duggan’s book, The Seventh Sense, however, that might be because most people approach networking all wrong.
For most of us, professional networking is all about finding a job, but according to Duggan, networking can be an opportunity to answer the most important question any of us will face: “what should I do with my life?”
In his book, Duggan relates the possibly apocryphal, though often cited story of Thomas Edison’s reply to a frustrated colleague’s dismay over their repeated failures. “I have not failed,” Edison said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” According to Duggan, this is the way most of us approach networking, as a numbers game. Knowing that the odds of randomly connecting with the right person are low, we try to meet as many people as possible hoping to find the one connection that works. This turns networking into a long, hard, and largely fruitless slog. “If you see networking as a ‘numbers game,’” Duggan writes, “the raw truth is that the numbers are stacked up against you.”
In place of the standard approach to professional networking, Duggan recommends what he calls “idea networking.” Duggan’s approach to networking is based on an obvious — if occasionally difficult to swallow — observation: most people just aren’t that interested in your job search. As opposed to single-mindedly pursuing an existing job through dozens or even hundreds of contacts, idea networking is a “treasure hunt for unforeseen opportunity,” Duggan says, in which ideas and questions that stimulate both you and others become the primary focus of a small series of high-quality conversations.
Idea networking can be broken down into roughly three steps:
1. Come up with an idea in the form of a question.
For many, this will be the hardest step, but it doesn’t have to be. Your question should cover a problem you’re passionate about, be specific enough to intrigue someone in the industry, and general enough to allow for many different possible answers. For those struggling to come up with a question, Duggan says: “Start with your interests, then ask yourself: how might that area change over the next 10 years? What new part of it would you be most interested in? Then your question is: is anyone doing X, and if so, how does it work?” “There is an infinite variety of questions,” he continues. “Test your question out on someone you trust to tell you if it is interesting or not. They might help you find a better one, too.”
2. Find one person to speak with.
Where in traditional networking, you might seek out dozens of people to meet and talk with, for idea networking, Duggan recommends reaching out to a single well-connected or influential person in the field who might be interested in your question. “You can contact that person by e-mail, phone, or — best of all — in person,” Duggan says. But whatever you do, “don’t say you’re looking for a job.” The goal of idea networking is to keep the focus on the idea.
3. Find three more…and three more….
When idea networking, how you end your meeting is every bit as important as how you start. To grow your network and continue pursuing your question, at the end of your conversation, ask the person if they know of anyone else who might be interested in discussing your question. They might give you anywhere from zero to ten 10 names — three is a good target. Then you do exactly the same with those three that you did with the first. And so on to three more, and more…
Gradually, you’ll become an expert in the particular puzzle you began with, and that expertise will impress the people you meet along the way.
“Eventually it will dawn on someone that you’re the kind of person they or someone they know really needs in these difficult, complex times,” Duggan writes. “They might think they’re looking for someone with a certain background, skills, or something else that appears on a résumé. But what they’re really looking for is something they don’t even realize until they see it: someone with ideas. And that’s what you demonstrate right from the first.”