The term 'networking' is often a daunting and anxiety-inducing buzzword for any job-seeking university student in 2022. Every career counsellor and online self-help course are quick to highlight the importance of networking in career success.
As I enter my final year of a five year degree, I've taken some time to reflect on the term 'networking' and how it has impacted my career trajectory. In doing so, I've narrowed down 'networking' into a few components which I've found easier to conceptualise.
Seeking out and connecting with people who are more experienced in their career, either due to their achievements or tenure in a position / industry. This can be broken down further into Next Level Networking and Endgame Networking.
Next Level Networking
Connecting with people one level / stage above you in their career e.g. a final year university student speaking to a recent graduate.
Listening to industry leaders and veterans speak about their experience and pathway to success, as well as any general advice for improving employability, or prospects of career success. This form of networking is more about passive information absorption than active engagement / relationships.
The Bottom-Up Approach: Cold Emails and LinkedIn
Switched-on university students seeking a greater understanding of the workforce in their chosen area often default to cold emails and LinkedIn messages to network. These are mostly attempts at Next Level Networking.
Despite good intentions, the time spent on this form of networking often outweighs the reward. You either commit to carefully tailored messages distributed to a smaller target audience, or waste time sending the same template message to fifty people (to which none reply).
The alternative form of bottom-up networking is what I call Endgame Networking. This is an 'intellectual sponge' type approach where you attend career events and keynote speeches to hear from successful industry veterans and glean insights from experiences. While this isn't really pure networking, the final result is similar: you continue building out your understanding of the building blocks of success.
These types of networking are important. Most networking articles you read, and videos you watch, teach networking from the bottom-up approach.
While it is possible to create opportunities and build relationships using a bottom-up approach, I've found it more useful to re-think networking from the top down.
So what is top-down networking and why is it so effective?
Top-Down Networking - Making time for people who are seeking opportunities in your field of relative expertise. Creating value for others first, and building relationship credit and respect among your peers and juniors.
A top-down networker is the person on the other side of your cold emails and LinkedIn messages. The person who often doesn't reply or leaves you on read. These are the people who you've been desperately trying to reach out to and learn from.
It's a pretty simple life principle to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. I've found that the best interactions and relationships are formed through top-down networking rather than bottom up networking. Making time to speak with smart and engaged students at high school at university, both at my level and below, have formed the strongest components of my network.
Almost every internship I've had has been a product of networking. While a strong CV is always a prerequisite to employment, the job market is simply too competitive to rely purely on a CV and cover letter. People must be willing to advocate for and support you internally.
Most people erroneously assume that networks are a product of nepotism. While financial and economic advantages often place privileged students alongside each other, your best chance to land a dream job is actually through your own connections, not the connections of family members.
Fortunately, I have very successful parents in the payments industry. However their 30 years of experience and relationships are mostly irrelevant to my career path. In order to learn about and make connections about the legal and corporate finance industries, I developed relationships with my peers at university and residential college, and was fortunate to have these people vouch for me in my first corporate internship experiences in Australia.
I am extremely grateful for this, and hope to pay these people back in the future. As I've begun to prioritise top-down networking in my own life, I've learned a few lessons, which you may find helpful:
- Think long-term - Bottom-up networking often comes across as ingenuine and forced. When you adopt a top-down networking approach, you provide value rather than seeking it out. While the selfish benefits of these relationships are harder to appreciate in the short term, the longer-term benefits are substantial
- Provide value before extracting it - This is easier than it sounds, because people will happily take advice that furthers their personal goals
- People want advice and support, not arrogance - When you give advice to juniors, be humble and realistic. People value authenticity and candidness. They don't want arrogance and entitlement
- Maintaining relationships is equally important as making connections - people progress at different rates, and giving someone a one-off piece of advice doesn’t build enough relationship credit to provide any long term value
- Build relationship credit - Relationship building is a value-accretive exercise. The more effort you put in, the more trust and respect you can build. Help create value for others in the short term in order to generate networks for the long term
I hope this was a helpful article for you to reflect on your current approach to networking, and gain a more nuanced understanding of the differences between top-down and bottom-up networking styles.