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James Millar, Author, Building Bridges: The Case for Executive Peer Networks

It’s no surprise that many people avoid professional “networking” activities. As a team of researchers reported in the May 2016 Harvard Business Review: “We know that [networking is] critical to our professional success, yet we find it taxing and often distasteful.” These scholars found that negative feelings toward professional networking were “not simply dislike or discomfort. It was a deeper feeling of moral contamination and inauthenticity.” Strong words, indeed!

Why does networking carry such negative stigma? What’s wrong with meeting new people? In most cases, it’s a design problem. Networking events often feel transactional, superficial, and a little desperate. It’s a tired model: Throw a group of strangers together, add food and drink, and hope they figure out whether—and how—to help each other. Many networking events are transparent about their objectives, whether it’s to “get more leads,” “develop friendships,” or “raise your profile.” Like speed dating, there is often an emphasis on quantity of conversations over quality. And a premium granted to those who excel in glad-handing and small-talk. “Here’s my card. Let’s get together soon.” Sure.

But here’s what too many people are missing: There is a big difference between networking (the verb) and networks (the noun). And we shouldn’t mistake the two.

I use the term “network” here to describe a group of peers who meet regularly to discuss shared challenges and opportunities. People who walk in your shoes. People who empathize. Your people. You may not be friends, but you share mutual respect. You value these relationships for their own sake, not for what they might give you.

In many ways, a well-designed professional network is the exact opposite of networking. It focuses on substance over style. Long-term over short-term. And trust over transactions. Great networks nourish both the mind and the soul. Who wouldn’t want more of that?

Given my line of work, people often ask me how they can get better at networking. And it’s an easy answer: “Don’t.” It’s like going to a seedy bar expecting to find love. The sort of people you want to marry probably aren’t hanging out in seedy bars. Similarly, the sort of people you want in your professional network probably aren’t attending networking events.

There are some good professional networks out there. But there aren’t enough yet. You may have to take the initiative to create your own group if no suitable peer network exists. How will you know? Talk to your friends. Talk to your advisors. Not to “network,” but to find the right network. Noun, not verb.

About the Author

James Millar is the author of BUILDING BRIDGES: The Case for Executive Peer Networks (July 2018). He is the founder of SkyBridge Associates, a company that designs, creates, and leads the executive peer networks that leaders need to build authentic relationships and share valuable insights. He is former director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School. 


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