Personal Development

On Networks, Connections and Communities

Here is a question: are networks and networking really worthwhile or are they in actual fact a poor return on investment in terms of our time and money?

This is a question that has occupied my mind lately. It was sparked off by two things happening.

First, having been meaning to for most of this year, re-joining the Royal Anthropological Institute and resuming contact with some old anthropology friends.

Second, having wanted to for many years, setting up a network for senior female professionals within asset finance, an industry often accused of being behind the diversity and inclusion curve (even by banking and finance industry standards).

Re-connecting with an existing network and kickstarting a new one are two very different experiences. Re-kindling my reading and engagement with anthropology has felt like ‘coming home’. To a warm, welcoming and familiar environment amongst people whose values I share. Starting up a new network is a little bit like the start of any personal relationship: you feel excited, a little bit nervous about whether people will like you, and you focus on (sometimes cling on to) commonalities. But whilst they are very different types of network, they both have the same key defining feature of people with shared interests coming together.

So then, what is wrong with the idea of people with shared interests coming together and why is there a general dislike of the very notion of networking? And why do so many people end up feeling that they have made a poor investment (or choice) in attending a networking event?

I suggest that there are three main reasons.

1. Networking is enforced on us by way of social convention

We are continuously told by ‘experts’ that it is the thing to do as it is important to ‘grow your network’, ‘raise your profile’, and ‘make meaningful connections’ (NB: not just connections -meaningful connections). Many attend networking events ‘cosi fan tutte’, not because they necessarily want to but because they feel that it is expected of them. Unfortunately, this can have the effect of the only shared interest being not wanting to be there. This is not a particularly interesting or constructive unifier - I have actually been at an event where this ended up as the key topic of conversation.

Philosophy teaches us that the definition of poverty is closely linked to a lack of agency (or control). We all want to be masters and mistresses of our own destinies and feeling compelled to do something is likely to make us feel both negative and resentful. This will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy with the net result of feeling that we have not made a ‘gain’ from our efforts.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to remedy. For me, my spare time is a precious commodity and I try to only be somewhere if I really want to be there. It really is as simple as that. Don’t go if you don’t want to.

2. Most networking is done without a clear sense of purpose

That is, not knowing why you are there other than definitely knowing that it is ‘the thing to do to progress your career’. I have certainly stood in a room full of strangers, holding a glass of wine, nursing existentialist angst and wishing myself elsewhere. But inevitably, without a clear and universally understood purpose, you will not have a group of people with shared interests.

‘Purpose’ will of course vary from network to network, and from event to event. On my two given examples, my purpose for engaging with the anthropology community is that it is something which I find self-indulgently fascinating. It also provides me with a different perspective and a counter-balance to the corporate world. My purpose for kick-starting a network and movement in asset finance is that I want to be part of the wave for change and innovation. Perhaps a bit provocatively, we call it, capitalised, The Network. This is a testament to having a clear ambition of wanting to effect change. You need to question the ‘why’. Why are you are engaging and what is your purpose for doing so?

3. Social convention expects us to be at our very best and to act in accordance with accepted norms

These norms tend to be both limited and limiting. We are expected to be interesting and interested, extroverted and quick-witted, confident and charming… characteristics that few of us possess in unison at all times. Above all, we are expected to act ‘professionally’. This is a term I still struggle to understand or define but in the professional networking environment, I know that it means not wearing certain clothes, drinking too much alcohol or being too outspoken. Acquiescing and abiding by these unspoken rules, I have often refrained from sharing some well-chosen words to xenophobic, chauvinistic, or elitist individuals encountered at networking events whereas I know that in a different environment, I would have voiced them liberally and loudly.

Feeling pressurised to behave in a certain way (which is rarely natural) goes back to the point about loss of agency. We end up feeling robbed of our ability to be ourselves and of our freedom of expression.

However, on the upside, I am increasingly starting to believe that most (though admittedly not all) of these pressures are self-imposed and that people will generally find it refreshing to encounter individuals who break away from expectations. I certainly do. And in any event, if the study of anthropology has taught me one thing, it is that regardless of situation or circumstance, communities will always have complex unwritten rules and conventions. Those applicable to networking events are arguably not entirely dissimilar to behavioural expectations at a child’s birthday party. Here’s to actually being ourselves and to challenging limitations!

If these are the reasons why networks and networking often fail, and if as per above the common pitfalls can be mitigated, what is the argument for making the effort and investment?

Put simply, for me, it is that people and communities will not only help us grow and expand our understanding of the world, but also enable us to do things that we would not be able to do on our own. Whether through the provision of knowledge, experience, or connections, investment in networks is something which will open up opportunities and in turn increase a sense of agency. In spite of introversion, I absolutely believe that we are social animals and that an exchange of ideas and challenge is what drives us forward and enriches our capabilities. People are obviously, like Venn diagrams, all part of numerous networks or communities which uniquely intersect at the individual. The more intersections and the more networks we have, the better our understanding of diversity and the world. I do not think that there is anything wrong with seeking communalities as long as there is a clear purpose to the interaction and whilst we remain open minded as to where it may take us.

I tend to think of, and linguistically use networks and communities interchangeably. Whilst ‘networks’ are often associated with professional interactions and ‘communities’ with those in the private sphere, they will often overlap. Similarly, the notion of a clear delineation between the professional and the private is somewhat misconceived as they inevitably blend into one another. Additionally, in modern society, the closeness of families and kinship is eroded from that which used to be the case. Whilst we are born into families and communities, most of us spend our lives in a different geographical location and sometimes culture to them. In consequence, we go out to seek new families and new communities -whether through friends, work or interests -or indeed a combination.

Perhaps the answer to the question of how to make a positive return on an investment in networks is to stop labelling and segmenting, and to stop feeling oppressed by social conventions of do’s and don’ts.

In conclusion, if we can be only in places where we want to be, be clear about our purpose for being there, and not be afraid of being ourselves, networks are how we best connect, engage, learn, grow and achieve.

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